Ironically Catcher in the Rye is now part of the establishment. It still sells 250,000 copies a year. School kids buy, I would imagine, many of those copies for their summer reading or their classes during the year. In fact, I taught the book to sophomores for two years during my regency in Tampa, Fla. I required students to analyze and then write about the many elements of Holden Caulfield’s character, his motivations, his successes and his shortcomings. I required students to sit in small groups and discuss the reliability of this narrator Holden. As they discussed, I awarded points to students supported their opinions with quotes from the text. I awarded points to students who directly responded to something another student had just said. There were points for particularly insightful comments that elicited discussion from the whole group. There were points for just about anything that facilitated more discussion and “deeper” analysis. I gave quizzes after each reading assignment on the minutiae of the book–albeit important minutiae. See how you do:
1. In what U.S. state does the novel begin?
2. What’s the name of the prep school from which he is most recently expelled?
3. How tall is Holden, and what color is his hair?
4. What brand of luggage does Holden carry?
5. Holden’s imagination is captured by which animals in Central Park?
6. According to Holden, what are Catholics always trying to do?
You can put down your pencils now and pass your papers to the student beside you. —
This was the typical reading quiz–written to see if the students had read the assignment. My actions and the actions of the many of my colleagues thoroughly established Salinger’s book within the traditional curriculum of the school.
I remember enjoying the book as a kid; I think I read it in the 7th or 8th grade at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. Maybe that’s why I was surprised at the reaction of most my students to the book and particularly to Holden. The typical student is repulsed by the character of Holden. Why doesn’t he grow up, they ask. Why does he whine so much? He’s so annoying, etc., etc. He’s been kicked out of four schools (Pencey Prep being the latest); he clearly doesn’t get the ‘real world.’ When I asked some veteran teachers about this response, many indicated that kids increasingly have little or no tolerance for Holden’s antics and his “whiny” little voice. They find him pathetic, and it turns them off, these teachers told me. Certainly there are aspects of the novel that are dated, the vocabulary being the most obvious example. However, this is not what bugs the contemporary student. It’s the very person of Holden and his inability to act right that bothers today’s readers.
This always mystified me. Bear in mind, I don’t worship the book or Holden. I consider an important book in the history of American literature. It’s not my favorite, nor is it my least favorite. Nonetheless, I am always a bit caught off guard my the strong reactions to Holden. Perhaps that’s another reason to admire Salinger; he’s still getting strong–albeit different–reactions from his readers. I’d like to suggest a reason for the strong negative reactions by way of a seventh quiz question.
7. Who is Allie and why is he important to Holden?
Perhaps you remember that Allie is Holden’s deceased younger brother. Allie was eleven, and Holden thirteen, when Allie died of leukemia. Holden keeps Allie’s baseball glove as a reminder of his dead brother. The glove is covered in poems written in green ink by Allie. It’s clear that the two were very close. Holden is a junior in high school–a few year past the death of his brother. On the night that Allie died, Holden put his hand through the garage door window. At the beginning of the novel Holden is speaking to the reader from a mental hospital in California. I’d like to suggest that contemporary students have trouble connecting with the pain of Holden. Perhaps this is a weakness in Salinger’s novel, but I don’t think so. It’s not easy to open yourself up to that much pain. It’s much easier, as a reader and as a person in the real world, to close yourself off from the pain of others. Some even close themselves off to their own pain.
Do we really want to let Holden’s character defects get in the way of our ability to see what’s really going on? He’s a kid who lost his brother to a disease. He’s a kid who, although clearly bright, can’t seem to find his way. It’s too easy to dismiss him as “difficult” or “rebellious.” Perhaps kids find it difficult to connect with Holden because they are forced to read this book of the establishment–a fact that must make J. D. Salinger spin in his grave.
Answers to the quiz:
2. Pencey Prep
3. 6’2”; grey
6. Trying to find out if you’re Catholic.