Holden Caulfield Has Left the Building

1021082_male_silhouetteApparently, teens don’t like Holden Caulfield any more.

Yesterday’s NY Times gave us an article about the demise of Holden’s appeal in the minds of the young. One teacher says, “Holden’s passivity is especially galling and perplexing to many present-day students…In general, they do not have much sympathy for alienated antiheroes; they are more focused on distinguishing themselves in society as it is presently constituted than in trying to change it.”

Another summarizes her students’ attitude as “I can’t really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City.”

For years I taught a course on novels about adolescence, beginning with The Catcher in the Rye. I reread the novel every semester and found myself gripped, shaken, and finally, reduced to tears. But many of my students stared at me blankly when I rhapsodized about Holden’s journey. When I asked one class how many of them HADN’T liked the novel, almost half of them raised their hands. “And why not?” I asked one of them.

He shrugged. “I’d like to show Holden what real problems are,” he said.

The Times suggests that Holden’s alienation is less accessible to today’s teens because of changes in the way society caters to teenage boys.

Perhaps Holden would not have felt quite so alone if he were growing up today. After all, Mr. Salinger was writing long before the rise of a multibillion-dollar cultural-entertainment complex largely catering to the taste of teenage boys. These days, adults may lament the slasher movies and dumb sex comedies that have taken over the multiplex, but back then teenagers found themselves stranded between adult things and childish pleasures.

(What Holden would have thought, or SAID he thought, about slasher movies and dumb sex comedies is debatable, of course.)

Despite the naysayers, many of my students say they do like the novel – it’s easy to read, Holden is funny, Phoebe is delightful. So I keep going back to it.

Have you read The Catcher in the Rye lately? Do you still love it, if you ever did? Have you taught it, and if so, what did your students think?

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7 responses

  1. I taught this novel only once in 2007 – and embarrassed to say I had never read it – but was gripped. I taught 16 year old privte school city kids and they LOVED it, especially the boys. I didn’t focus on Holden, I focused on “phoniness” more than his journey and had them relate his plight to its influence on “modern day” literature (other books, songs, film, etc). That’s what got them engaged (and believe me, they normally WEre engaged in NOTHING.) I also explored his so-called mental illness – we debated if he really had one – and they got it. So I don’t agree that this book no longer works with teens. It depends on how you use it, that’s all.

    • Gen X:
      We discuss some of the same topics, and I have them compare Catcher and Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (they don’t all love that, either…) They’re always intrigued by the question of whether Holden was sexually abused – it seems to be a topic they are dying to talk about. So I agree that there are ways to connect teenagers to the text, just as there are ways with many texts that they might not immediately relate to.

  2. In my SLC there are three of us English teachers. We work well together. We are a first year high school which means much gets done on the fly; like our honors classes. We weren’t allowed to have them as solo courses as with an SLC we didn’t have/know the students well enough to fill a full period. Therefore, our kids had an honors option which was all independent work.

    OK, so how we used the book. Throwing together a large independent unit we paired Catcher with The Chosen. Weird you say? Nope! The kids traced character growth and common themes. It worked and they somehow came up with some wonderful themes.

    I’d totally teach it again, but this time not independently. The kids get Holden still, at least my inner city kids who don’t always feel connected to greater society do.

    • Tamara: I don’t know The Chosen, but I think that synthesizing ideas from different novels is always a great idea – it helps kids see the interconnectedness of ideas in general!

      My focus w/ Catcher was on psychoanalytic theory. We went over the absolute basics of Freud’s ideas – id, ego, superego – and I had them write letters from Holden to Freud detailing his problems, and responses from Freud, giving explanations and advice. I love this exercise, and they seemed to enjoy it too.

  3. Pingback: Top 10 Posts of 2009 « classroom as microcosm

  4. When I was in high school (1960-64) the book was banned! Naturally, I read it. As luck had it, I was 16 myself. I think I read the book pretty much in one sitting and thought at the time that I had never seen anything so amazing in my life. A book written by an adult who GETS what it’s like to be 16!

    Fifteen years later, I taught high school English for a year. By that time, the book was required reading. In trying to share my enthusiasm for the book with the kids, I came face to face with the realization that banning the book made it a whole lot more interesting than REQUIRING it. Even so, most of the kids (themselves now middle aged) really got into it.

  5. Below, I wrote a lot about CitR on a very old post so I don’t know if you’ll read this, but I’m in highschool and started reading your blog a few weeks ago and it’s great. I feel like I’m learning a lot about how to be a better student or a better learner, actually (Are those different things? They seem to mean different things.) Anyway, that was the important part, here’s the part where I stumble on my words: 

    Reading Catcher in the Rye the first time I started reading thinking, “I’m going to LOVE this book.” But after finishing it I was mostly just disappointed.  Though I can’t think of anything I disliked about the story or writing style. After reading, and loving, Franny and Zooey I want to reread Catcher in the Rye and I’m guessing I’ll like it a lot more the second time. Because after reading it and getting my own opinion on it I’ve stripped it of it’s “Great Classic- If you read you must like it” feel that it had the first time. Secondly after reading Franny and Zooey I have an understanding of how Salinger works and how he doesn’t dive into the character’s thoughts and worries, but shows them in more realistic ways. Like how Holden asks where the birds (ducks, geese, flamingoes? I don’t remember) go in the winter. 

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