The Catcher in the Rye: The Greatest Book of Its Time
The late J. D. Salinger's masterpiece has long been the spark of debate, but in the high school classroom it still might be the best book of its kind.
On 27 January 2010 J. D. Salinger died at the age of 91 and the world promptly began mourning him. Several eulogies were written, printed and posted in various media sources [including a eulogy of Salinger's Seymour Glass written for PopMatters by Chadwick Jenkins (5 February 2010)]. Once again, as happens every five years or so, it became popular to wax poetic about the literary achievement that was a nice little book called The Catcher in the Rye. Accordingly, as happens every five years or so, it also became popular to talk about how overrated The Catcher in the Rye is (see Aaron Sager's "Why I Dislike ‘Rye’: Not be-Holden to Salinger’s ‘Catcher’", for example, PopMatters 11 February 2010)
The Catcher in the Rye holds a very singular place in the world of literature. It's a classic to be sure, but it's often thought of as the classic—more than a coming of age novel; more than a great coming of age novel. The Catcher in the Rye is the Citizen Kane of coming of age novels, which means it pulls off a much more difficult trick than actually being the best coming of age novel ever written; it's widely accepted as the greatest coming of age novel ever written.
Much like Citizen Kane it is more than a work of art. The Catcher in the Rye is the answer to a poll question. "What is the greatest coming of age tale ever written?" for example, or "What is the best young adult novel ever penned?" and of course the inevitable backlash of "What is the most overrated American literary classic in history?"
Here's the thing though, the thing that so many people writing about it, people like me for example, often fail to realize: sometimes things are considered great by the masses because they truly are great. However, is this the case with The Catcher in the Rye? Is it as great as those that worship it insist it to be? No. The Catcher in the Rye is not great and it certainly isn't as great as everybody says it is. It's greater. The Catcher in the Rye is the greatest book of its time. I know because I'm a high school teacher and I teach it every year.
Author: J. D. Salinger
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Publication Date: 1991-05
Length: 224 pages
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/l/lipkin-rye-cover.jpgThe Catch
I didn't get to teach it at first.
My department chair said that Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was more important. Arguing that students needed The Catcher in the Rye more than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a very difficult argument to win. Winning it would have meant that I'd successfully proven how unimportant The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, which is a point that I could never, and would never have a desire to, prove. So I got a "yes" to Twain and a "no" to Salinger.
The same colleague intimated that teaching The Catcher in the Rye would be a waste of time. She suggested that the novel was overrated, students didn't like it and they only read it so they could read the word "Fuck" as part of an assignment. This assertion disconcerted me, because at the risk of sounding pretentious, or at the very least like a member of "the Catcher cult" as described in Frank Portman's hilarious 2006 novel King Dork, I really thought that the novel described what teachers should be when they are at their best.
"What I have to do," Salinger wrote, "I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."
Author: Frank Portman
Publication Date: 2008-02
Length: 368 pages
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/l/lipkin-kingdork-cover.jpgI am no Holden Caufield, but I am a catcher in the rye. All teachers should be. There are entire weeks when I feel as though I'm catching kids from whatever fall they are in the midst of. Maybe my colleague didn't understand that part of being a teacher. She cared about her students, and I'm certain that she would never have knowingly let one of them fall. It seemed to me that she felt it was her job to teach them and not catch them. Students fall all of the time though and a detailed lesson plan is not always sufficient a net with which to catch them. Quite often The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn isn't either.
Caught At Last
I finally did get the opportunity to teach The Catcher in the Rye. Many factors, including a new department chair, contributed to this, but most important was the fact that that year was "the fifth year". That year was one of the years that comes along every five years or so and finds people talking about The Catcher in the Rye again. The novel was popular. It was mentioned in movies and on television shows and when I brought it up as a novel to teach it was very much on other people's minds.
So I began teaching young adults the classic young adult novel The Catcher in the Rye. My colleague couldn't have been more wrong. My students instantly connected with the novel and immediately the level of our discourse deepened. Prior to reading The Catcher in the Rye class discussions had always cast me in the role of carnival barker. It was always a matter of bait and switch. Class discussion was a matter of getting the class to buy the tonic and take a sip of it before they realized that there was any actual learning taking place. The Catcher in the Rye changed this classroom dynamic.
Here was a novel that I didn't need to trick them into discussing. Here was a novel that they wanted to discuss, one that they were discussing in the halls as they walked to class; one that prompted them to stop at the door so that they could ask me various questions about Holden, his siblings, the baseball mitt or that red hunting hat. Most of my students felt as though they were reading a book about themselves or somebody they knew.
Is Cather in the Rye Still Relevant?
In June of 2009, The New York Times published an article entitled "Get a Life, Holden Caufield" (Jennifer Schuessler, 20 June 2009) The article, written in the wake of a restraining order being filed to stop the publication of an unauthorized sequel called 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye (yes, that is really the title), implied that the novel might be losing favor with contemporary high school students.
High school teacher Julie Johnson suggested that Holden was simply too passive for today's teenagers to relate to. The piece quoted a bit of a 2008 NPR interview with Gossip Girl executive producer Stephanie Savage, where she suggested that there is a teenage culture that was absent from the world of Holden Caufield. Holden Caufield: Giving Voice to Generations" (All Things Considered 20 January 2008) The interview ended with the assertion that Holden was simply too whiny and in need of anti-depressants.
I don't disagree with the article's individual points; Holden is whiny and far too passive for my tastes. However, I think that people who hold this view may be underestimating how passive contemporary teenagers can be. Teenagers can bombard themselves with as many electronic images as the internet will allow them, but they're still just sitting in front of the computer. Similarly, do not underestimate a teenager's ability to whine. In fact every year while studying The Catcher in the Rye I laugh when a student whines, "Why does he have to whine all the time?" Finally, all of these theories as to why students can't relate to Holden overlook the reason why most of them do: Holden Caufield is a high school student that doesn't like high school.
In an ideal world, students would rush to class with a thirst for knowledge. I've never had the opportunity to teach in an ideal world. All of my teaching has taken place in the real world and as such I have encountered a number of students who would rather be anywhere else but school. If a student likes school he or she certainly knows somebody who doesn't; students are either like Holden or know somebody like him.
Also, the New York Times article seems to intimate that it is difficult to like The Catcher in the Rye if you don't like Holden Caufield, and I find that absurd. Holden Caufield is, at times, a very unlikeable character, and this has always factored largely in my teaching of the novel. The question shouldn't be "Do you like Holden Caufield?" it should be "If you don't like Holden Caufield do you care about what happens to him?"
The Catcher Cult
In 2006 Frank Portman published his novel King Dork which ostensibly had harsh words to say about The Catcher in the Rye. Throughout his novel, Portman continually makes fun of both the teachers who try to convince their students that it is the best book that they'll ever read and the students who believe it. He calls them members of "the Catcher Cult".
King Dork is spot on in most of its critiques. People do tend to go on and on about The Catcher in the Rye. People do tend to speak as though it's some sort of holy literary grail. People do tend to speak of it as if it is the greatest book of its kind ever written. King Dork, which is itself a marvelous book that deserves more attention, points out all of this and refuses to pull any punches. However, in doing so it proves my point and indicates just how great The Catcher in the Rye really is. After all, whether Portman truly dislikes The Catcher in the Rye or not, he does spend a great deal of his own novel discussing it.
I have taught the novel to almost 1,000 students in my career, a lot of which are probably in "the Catcher cult" category, and their feelings towards Holden are intriguingly mature. Many don't like him, but they care for him, they feel deeply for him. Whenever his sister Phoebe looks at him with hero worship in her eyes, students want to see the same things in him that she does. Whenever Holden mourns the loss of his brother Allie, students mourn the loss along with him. They feel more than sympathy, they feel empathy. They desperately want to hear more about a character that they never even get an opportunity to meet, a character taken before his time that was smart, thoughtful and played baseball with poetry on his fingers. The novel always seems to make students want without ever leaving them wanting.
The Greatest Book of its Time
It's the greatest book of its time because it is the one that students read in its entirety. I've had several students tell me that it is the first book that they've ever read all the way through. Most of these students also tell me that it's the first book they've ever liked.
It's the greatest book of its time because, more than any other book that I've ever taught, it makes students feel in ways that a young wizard and a glowing vampire never could. It creates an involuntary response in all of those that read it, whether they like it or not. It creates passion in young readers and it continues to do so every single year that I teach it.
The Catcher in the Rye is the greatest book of its time because it makes students who read it, even the ones who don't like reading, want to read more. This year my classes had amazing discussions surrounding the novel. Anyone who dislikes the novel, I wish they could have studied it with us. To quote Salinger, "God, I wish you could've been there."