Holden Caulfield Has Left the Building: Reprise

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I’m not teaching The Catcher in the Rye this term, but I’m pre-planning next year’s course on novels about adolescence, and wondering whether to include it in the list.  The post below, first published in June 2009, grapples with the possibility that maybe it’s not the best choice for today’s youth, at least not those in my college’s demographic.

Do you love CITR? Do your students love it?  Should I make my students read it?  Give me your thoughts.

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Apparently, teens don’t like Holden Caulfield any more.

The New York Times published an article in 2009 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 began my course on novels about adolescence 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 NYT 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?

Image by Barun Patro

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22 responses

  1. I’m only a year and a half out of college, so I was a student not that long ago. In high school I read CITR and didn’t understand what the hype was all about. Being a book nerd, I’m always disappointed when I don’t “get” a classic. Then in a Young Adult Lit class in college I re-read it. I finally understood the themes, the characters, the whole nine yards. It still wasn’t my favorite. But for high school students, I can see why it would be a fun book to read. Most teachers don’t let their students curse or read books with curse words, so that’s a plus to some students. On the other hand, the book is so outdated it must be so difficult for a teenager to relate. Holden doesn’t have an iphone, or a facebook page, or a computer. In my opinion, as time goes by, the harder teachers are going to have to work to make this book interesting to students and relatable in any shape or form. My opinion: worth the read. Even if they don’t understand the true themes, they need to understand that not THAT long ago things were a lot different.

  2. I taught CIR to high school freshmen for years (up through 2010–don’t teach freshmen at the moment), and I’d say 85% of my students either loved or liked it. High school is a different beast, however. I used to spend a bit more than two weeks on that novel, and we would discuss it daily in conversations infused with my own love for it. That is, I think I led many of the kids to enjoy it. Though they might have been annoyed with Holden (who wouldn’t be?–the kid is screwed up), I helped them peel back the layers to appreciate the novel’s humor and depth. All that said, there are a lot of contemporary CIR-like books–Black Swan Green, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and others…. Who knows? Perhaps, like books such as To Kill a Mockingbird, CIR is growing stale….

    • I beg to differ on your comment re To Kill A Mockingbird.
      That story, in book or film form, is a true classic that students always, eventually, relate to. There are too many themes to explore in that story. And, since it is told from the child’s view, it still resonates for me. And I make it resonate for my students, best as I can, in my film class.

      • I know many people who love TKAM, but I’m certainly not one of them. I couldn’t stand teaching it back in the 1990s—thought the book over-written, facile in its messages, and, ironically, racist in an especially insidious way. The whole white savior/passive, humble black victim theme made my skin crawl. I mean no disrespect, TB, for I’m sure you make that book a rich, rewarding experience in your class. Perhaps, for a few decades, TKAM was a “true classic”—but only for white people. The novel humiliates and enrages many African Americans.

      • To Kill a Mockingbird, unfortunately, is just as relevant as when it was written. Plus, the humor is what keeps me coming back. Wonderful, timeless book.

        • You’re right–sadly, racism is just as relevant now as when TKAM was written. So, if you teach this novel, how do you address the book’s deep racism and the fact that many, many African Americans hate it–hate that a children’s novel objectifies them, makes them seem passive and helpless, compares them to songbirds, etc, etc?

          I teach Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a book considered by many (like author Chinua Achebe) as extraordinarily racist. Although this doesn’t stop me from teaching this novel, I feel it necessary to discuss the charges against it, for they are exceedingly valid—-the novel treats Africans as symbols, as victims, as primitive creatures…. I have my students read Achebe’s famous essay and we discuss his points–crucial to the teaching of HOD. The question becomes this: Does the book’s genius (its sublime poetry, intense plot, gorgeous imagery, mind-blowing ambiguity, and, of course, overt critique of cruelty and racism) overcome its inherent flaw, a by-product of the time it was written? I say yes, and that’s why I teach it. I can’t say the same of TKAM, but then again I’m comparing an adult novel to one written for children.

    • I completely agree with @englishteacherconfessions. When I was a student, I had some teachers who didn’t have the best approach with the classics, but one really great teacher who provided that guidance, which I think you need to have a hope of your students getting anything out of the readings, as you said, “peel back the layers.”

      Even if they don’t end up loving the novel, they may learn how to dig a little deeper and take something of value away. I say keep it! ;)

  3. I read CITR recently as part of an American Literature course. The professor had structured the class around the changing idea of adolescence, and each of the books taught centered on what constitutes the adolescent.
    As cited from the New York Times, teens during Holden’s time did not have the same diversions that teens do now. It could be a great learning experience for students to recognize how much popular culture markets to them (as a side note, I live in Texas, and am struck with how cell phone companies cater to tweens. One store has posters plastered on the wall, filled with tweens who must have the latest smart phone). Have them think of all the distractions afforded by the Internet. Even with all that, teens still feel alienated.
    That feeling of alienation is what makes Holden Caulfield still relevant. Yes, he has his own times’ forms of entertainment, but he is still lost. That theme in adolescent books does not go away.
    Good luck on the class. What other books are you going to read?

  4. I think you can find so many more current authors and titles that will engage students more. Check out the works of Sherman Alexie. Or offer CITR as a choice in a themed unit- perhaps students don’t need to all read the same book? Maybe small groups can read one title and another group another? Then again, it’s good for readers to understand these problems existed then.. and now.

  5. I think Holden would have been even more alienated today than in the time when the book was written. Yes, we have a vast entertainment-industrial complex that caters to teenage boys, but it largely glorifies a few major stereotypes of maleness and manhood and the roles that teenage boys and men are expected to embody, none of which I think would have been compelling or comforting to Holden.

    And Holden would have been even more alienated now by the culture of competitive, high stakes academics and college admissions. I think a lot of the kids who are playing that game are paying for it in authenticity–some of them see the problem, but some of them don’t.

    Holden was never a hero for the masses, but I think he’d be just as important now to the few kids in a position to identify with him.

  6. In polling my college students (both freshmen in my comp class and upperclassmen in my lit courses) I find they overwhelmingly dislike Catcher in the Rye. When we discussed this, the bottom line is that Holden doesn’t fit anything of their world view or frustrations; the language is stilted and “old fashioned.” I, of course, was horrified. I had loved this book. But then I had to look it as a bit of relic of a gone-by era, if I was telling myself the truth. Sometimes it is very hard to look in the mirror and realize I’m older (just turned 60) when inside I’m still somewhere between 17-24. I like that my attitude feels younger and my expectations of myself are energetic, open, and founded on ideals from earlier decades. But the kids are facing new challenges and need a new anti-hero hero for their times.

  7. I teach TCITR in my American Lit class… how can I not? I’ve found that if I take a psychological approach, it works. We takes some theories (Freud, Erikson…) & apply them to Holden’ character. When all is said & done, I show The Breakfast Club (hence, the relevance issue addressed) & ask them to choose one of the character’s to analyze. When we are done, students write a paper on the relevance of Holden’s character as compared to the one of their choosing from the film.

    • Mirror M: so interesting, because when I taught CITR I also used psychological theory – one exercise they liked was writing advice request letters from Holden’s pov, and then writing replies from Freud, Kohlberg etc. Do they find The Breakfast Club relevant? I would have assumed that it would be very dated for them, but I’d love to have an excuse to show it.

      • They actually do! I think because the stereotypes are still stereotypes they can connect to. One option might be to discuss the what has not changed from Holden to the characters in TBC to today. Let me know how it goes!

  8. I am a high school student, and I still love The Catcher in the Rye. Although Holden may seem whiny and depressed, it’s a nice, and always relatable, change from other literary characters.

  9. I’ve never particularly liked Holden. He seems like a very modern character in terms of his search for meaning/hope/whatever, and I’ve got a Gen Xer’s pragmatism: Dude, either do something or don’t, but either way, QUIT WHINING.

  10. One method you could consider is forcing people to empathize for or against Holden’s point of view. If the students don’t relate to him, have them try to sympathize with him. If the student does sympathize with Holden, have them try to see why he may not be a sympathetic character. It could teach empathy, history, and cultural studies.

  11. Some of the comments address the problem, as expressed by an earlier poster, that “the book is so outdated it must be so difficult for a teenager to relate. Holden doesn’t have an iphone, or a facebook page, or a computer. In my opinion, as time goes by, the harder teachers are going to have to work to make this book interesting to students and relatable in any shape or form.”
    I don’t like current fiction much — at least the stuff my book club reads — and so I only teach older literature. (When I teach The Odyssey next month, one of my angles will be The Odyssey as Telemachus’ Bildungsroman!) By setting up contexts carefully, I make sure that my students know they will be transported into worlds without iphones, Facebook, or computers, and I try to find the commonalities which WILL help them recognize what is relevant.
    I didn’t really find CIRT problematic when I taught it to high school kids in 2003 and 2004. I liked it and thought the majority of them were okay with it, too. If you want I can canvass those of my ex-students who are on Facebook with me, and see if they have any impressions I can pass on. (We also read A Separate Peace, also set at a prep school, with adolescent protagonists.)

  12. Did you see my post last week about CITR? My 9th graders read it as their summer reading and they do not seem to sympathize with Holden in the least. They find him whiny and annoying. Perhaps there is some merit to him no longer being a relatable character.

  13. Thank you all so much for your thoughts on this! It’s interesting to see what different experiences we’ve all had with this book.

    I think a lot about the fact that English teachers are a particular sort of person who is drawn to particular sorts of things, and most of our students are NOT that sort of person, and so what is meaningful to us is often baffling to them. For example, I read Franny & Zooey when I was twenty and it changed my life, but when I teach it, my students almost unanimously hate it. There are often one or two in a class of 40 who enjoy it, and so I know that I have something in common with those kids. But then I need to turn my attention to the rest and try to find something that will resonate with them…

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