Holden Caulfield: Annoying and Necessary

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:

1. California

2.  Pencey Prep

3. 6’2”; grey

4. Gladstones

5. Ducks

6. Trying to find out if you’re Catholic.

10 Responses to Holden Caulfield: Annoying and Necessary

  1. Thanks. I failed the quiz, though I read the book just about three years ago. Franny and Zooey is one of my top 10 favorite novels. I wish Salinger could have given us more, but thank God for what he did give.

  2. Qualis Rex says:

    I was forced to read this book when I came to the US: once in Highschool then again in my religion class at a well-known Jesuit University, along with the companion book “Frannie and Zoey”. IMHO “CITR” is one of the most overrated books in the world. It is heavy on teen angst and 50’s Americana, but light on classical structure, morality or any action to speak of (except when the protagonist is roughed-up every few chapters). I think its power lies in the fact that so many people tend to project their own feelings and experiences into it, giving it a substance that simply is not there without the participation of the individual reader.

    I like the title of this thread “Annoying and Necessary”. I definitely find it annoying, but the necessary component is a circular argument: it’s required reading in so many courses because it’s one of the best-selling novels of all time…it’s one of the best-selling novels because it is required reading in so many courses.

    • Jeff Johnson SJ says:

      Qualis Rex,
      Thanks for your comments. I know you might not have been addressing directly my own post, but I would like to address a couple of the things you bring up.

      Lacking morality? As I suggested in the post, the ability to look beyond someone’s faults in order to be able to find the core of their humanity is a profoundly moral task. I think that’s the challenge put forward to the reader by Salinger. Perhaps I wasn’t clear.

      I also address the issues of it’s age (some vocabulary falls flat) and the angst (a device cleverly used by Salinger).

      Your comment regarding the relationship between reader and text is interesting. It sounds as if you would prefer that readers simply stay out of the way when they read a book. I’m not sure how that would happen. A reader’s response to a work seems to be an important element in the relationship between text and reader. For instance, take your own relationship to the work. You do not like it on several accounts. I hope you aren’t suggesting that your own “feelings and experiences” are not “giving it a substance that is simply not there.” It sounds like you might be suggesting that people who like the book are deceived by their pitiful subjectivity, while you have a more objective standard (classical structure, morality, and action).

  3. Since Jeff and Rex got into wordology, maybe
    some other angles of vision can also be considered,
    emanating from both philosophy and psychology,
    with a bearing on “novels” generically, and this
    one indirectly…. However, simultaneously I ask
    if maybe a separate post be developed by the Jesuits
    since the subject matter is vast?

    To me, the whole question and place of novels
    in these Post-Modern times or whatever the heck
    somebody out there wants to label them, raises
    their continued “legitimacy” due to our Knowledge-
    Explosion Times, and that we don’t live more than
    say, 100 years.
    I myself never liked novels: they were too full
    of guess-jobs about reality. I only liked actual
    Behavioral Sciences material, because they fed me
    reality. Then, I recently find some support for
    that in a theologian writing that whereas novels
    “guess” at their reality, theology “asserts” its
    reality! Something to that effect….

    Next I got into Jungian Psychology as housed
    in personality type theory, acronymed the “MBTI”
    which is the only one of four personality theories
    actually Scientifically Validated.
    Well, guess what? It “asserts” that certain “types”
    are drawn to “certain types” of reading! The
    historical mere assumption that certain novels
    are classic is a man-made concoction that is not
    nor can it be, scientifically validated. So therefore
    why make “some” student needlessly suffer something
    that their inherited DNA just can’t muster?!

    That was followed up by not just novels being
    called into question, but, hey, “even” one’s
    assumed Spirituality! Wow!
    Yes, look up “Prayer and Temperament: Different
    Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types”
    by Michael & Norrisey. It is the only one of its
    kind, researching Catholic approaches to Spirituality
    broken down by key tradition type! Excellent research!

    So, enough tabled to wet our appetites for a
    paradigm shift or so in our times towards continued
    growth, towards the maturing of both the teaching
    professions and the behavioural sciences handling
    of life engagements. Etc.

    In sum, I hate novels. I love books on anything
    to do with supportable Behavioral Sciences. And
    I don’t demand others like what I like. But I grow
    because of them, and despite not reading any novels!

  4. Hi,

    About a month ago I read CITR for the second time, (I’m 24 years old) and I just started really understanding the depth of this novel. And this has made me reconsider my education and the way novels were presented to me in school, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts with regard to that.

    I’ve just about finished Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as well, and I think this is also an amazing novel, so jam-packed with wisdom that I am glad I waited until I finished school to start reading it. A friend saw me reading it the other day and mentioned that he was made to read it in high school, so I asked him if he liked it. He laughed and said, “I can’t remember anything about it.”

    I think my friend’s situation is very common in that “novels” are those things we “have to do” in school and then when we’re out of school we can forget about them.

    I can honestly say I didn’t read a single novel in high school (I think precisely because they said I had to, hahaha) and I am glad I didn’t because now I have the freedom to really get into these books, meditate on them, realize their genius, and relate them to events in my own life.

    I was a “late bloomer” when it came to reading. I was a whiz at math and science, but my lowest standardized-test scores were always in reading comprehension. But again, I have to question was this because of my nature or because of my practice and how reading was presented to me at the time? When I got to college I won awards as a journalist and was even published by W.W. Norton & Company. Yet, I failed one course in high school, -creative writing.

    (I guess I’m venting my frustration a little here, hahaha)

    Anyway, I think the standard, rushed way in which novels are presented in the typical school can really hinder a love for reading. As reading and writing really can be the highest forms of classical art, they inherently go deep and touch the soul of anyone who opens up to them. In the midst of all the drama and phoniness of high school, how many people are really ready to realize these things, and for those who are, how do we encourage them without ruining the chance for everyone else in the future?

    For example, I didn’t know personally a single person who died until I was in college. Can anyone really relate to Holden or get anything from CITR without having such an experience?

    So I think as far as education and novels go, novels should be presented in a more relaxed manner. And as with all education, a love for life-long learning should be nurtured instead of an education that is based on what everyone else is doing and reading.

    If I had to teach literature, I would first hold a few discussions about what literature is. How to use it, etc. Then maybe let the students choose a popular novel, either to read in a group or alone, but give them the entire semester to read, discuss, and then write about it on their own time. While at the same time doing in-class activities about the most important writers and novels of any given time period.

    In a way I think this is one of the points made by Salinger in CITR. Holden is a bright kid, but the educational system which he has been forced into is completely inconsiderate of his personal station in life. As if these stations were dependent on age and grade alone.

    • Jeff Johnson SJ says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful post. You raise lots of good questions about teaching and the teaching of novels, in particular. I, too, have had the experience of returning to a book I was assigned to read in school (and didn’t), only to find it a very enjoyable read. I think much of this phenomenon has to do with maturity.

      I agree with trying to present novels in a less authoritarian way. There was an interesting op-ed piece in the Times today about literacy efforts in early elementary education. Here is the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/opinion/02engel.html

      Thanks for reading our blog.

  5. Dominic Clark (gt:clarkd30) says:

    Jeff Johnson SJ:
    I liked how you touched upon the significance of Allie in The Catcher in the Rye. I read the book last year for English and I thought it was a well-written novel. I see you touch a little upon the static nature of Holden Caulfield, but you fail to make one big realization. Throughout the novel, Holden is looking for a guide figure, but never finds one. You also fail to note the significance of Phoebe in the novel. His younger sister gives him advice, but she is incapable of being his guide due to her age. How could a nine-year-old girl help a seventeen-year-old boy? Other than that, I would agree with you on Allie being important to Holden. You note the significance of him punching the wall due to Allie’s death. I would agree that someone my age would have a hard time realizing the pain and suffering one goes through when someone close to him or her dies suddenly. I also liked that you mentioned the poems. It depicts Allie as an aesthetically innocent character. I think Holden is jealous of Allie in a way, because to him he will forever be youthful. Holden is afraid to change and mature, and the fact that both Allie and Phoebe fascinate him indicates his desire to stay young.

    Thank you.

  6. Patrick Lonzo says:

    Last year, I read “Catcher in the Rye” as a sophomore in high school in American Literature. In response to the first and last sentences of your post, the fact that the novel “is now part of the establishment” may seem to detract from the understanding and appreciation of the student readers. From my reading experience last year, however, I found that reading this novel as part of the establishment provided more connection and deeper interpretation of the character of Holden. Not only did it help to hear what other classmates and our teacher thought about Holden’s character, but the connections that my peers felt with Holden proved very insightful. Many classmates found the novel extremely boring and pointless, and, as the author of this post hints, many found the character of Holden annoying, whiny, and immature. Although I respect the opinions of these people, many others, myself included, connected to the novel in a rare way. Rather than criticizing Holden’s character, I learned to understand and almost admire him. Either way, this novel demonstrates the difference that one’s state of mind, mood, and current thoughts about life can have on the interpretation of a novel. Salinger obviously projects his own self in the character of Holden, and seemed to be almost as lost in his own life in a way, but he should not be looked down upon. After reading “Catcher in the Rye”, which took almost all beauty out of life, the reader can understand why Salinger would want to escape the consumerist society that we live in. Even with some strange personal habits, Salinger wrote a novel that many have connected with in “The Catcher and the Rye”‘s long and successful history, and I admire someone that can spawn that strong of an emotion, both negative and positive, from a reader.

    • Jeff Johnson SJ says:

      Glad to hear you enjoyed reading the book. Perhaps I could have been clearer on the point about the establishment. All I mean is that Salinger must have chuckled to himself every time he considered that every school age kid in America “has to read CITR.”

      I agree with your reading of Holden as an admirable character. Salinger has given us another version of the American hero, a new of Huck Finn. Salinger challenges the reader to understand what sort of hero Holden presents.
      Thanks for an engaging comment,

  7. COD MOD 2 rulez says:

    Yea Pat

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