Sunday, June 21, 2009

Getting A Hold on Holden Caulfield

J.D. Salinger's modern classic The Catcher In The Rye has been in the news quite a bit with the recent legal developments surrounding writer J.D. California's take off novel 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye. This sort of attention inevitably generates new commentary and criticism on the original work, and the New York Times published an article yesterday that evaluated Holden's longevity, his place as a symbol of the confused youth, and how generation Y responds to a teenager now nearly sixty years old. This naturally forced me to examine my own relationship with Holden, and what my own experience, and responses of others have been. 

When I first read Catcher in the Rye, I was a senior in high school and had recently turned seventeen. I hung out with a heavy-rock-and-wannabe-punk-but-actually-emo type of social circle. Like any high school experience it was an exploding bladder of high-octane drama. I was determined to leave my small town, and had dreams of becoming a film maker (writer/director, I naively believed I would be able to avoid doing grunt work) of merit, but certainly not a "main stream whore." I only listened to bands that weren't signed to major labels, had a burning hatred for the main stream consciousness and those who manipulated the artistic process for high profit, and aspired to achieving something artistically pure. In retrospect I have no doubt that a lot of these beliefs I adopted in an effort to differentiate myself, that I was lost, tormented by emotions and having difficulty accepting myself for who I was. In short I was an angsty teen. 

With that picture in mind, I don't suppose it's difficult to accept that Catcher in the Rye would appeal to me. Like Holden I was lost, a hypocrite (which I believe I knew deep down), wholly unsure of myself but expressing my opinions vehemently, and in desperate need of help. However, in light of the Times article, I think perhaps that my sensibilities were much more like those of its young rebellious readers of the sixties, though hobbled and made crooked by the time in which I was raised. Holden may have appeared broken and lost to me in high school, but my state of being was so similar to his at the time that finding him was like finding a like minded individual at a political party meeting to which you're not a member. 

The response of my classmates was much like that in the article, citing him as emo or whiny. For many discussion of the character didn't go any farther than "Who cares? He's gay!"--referring to Holden's less than concrete sexuality. The matter wasn't to be discussed as another aspect of Holden's uncertainty but rather these were conservative children from conservative homes. Those that could see past that I believe largely fell into two separate camps, but with the same root source, also discussed in the article; 
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.
I believe that this quote speaks directly to the major flaws of generation Y: an obsessive interest in money, fame and overall self-centered concerns. I don't hold myself above it, and I see it quite frequently all around me. Bleeding heart emo music has risen to prominence, I suspect, for those same reasons. It is in this way that the modern response to Caulfield forks. There are those who I believe layer him in 'emo' clothing and relate to him in that way and those that reject him because of the culture's over-saturation of self-concern, or their own inflated self-concern. Ironically, I think the misunderstood youth of Holden Caulfield is now most misunderstood by those of his very age. 

I read Catcher in the Rye a second time this past year, nearly three years after my initial read through. It was with dismay that I read a novel, that seemed to be vastly removed from my own life, and with a protagonist who won only my pity and nostalgic sympathies. At the end of the book, I was thrown by Holden's minutely changed attitude. Hadn't he grown up, matured? At the end of the novel, Holden is still railing and with my own feelings toward "phonies" and counter-culture minimized (though ever-present, evidenced here) I no longer knew quite what to make of him. Holden's journey seemed much smaller to me, almost exclusively focused on fear of failure. Blinded by my expectations, I don't think I understood that is Holden's entire journey. I believe I forgot why the novel would have appealed to me  in the first place, when my aspirations were rocket high and my artistic principles lofty. In truth I feel as though I need to revisit Salinger's classic one more time. Even as I write this I'm unsure of the truth of it, my recollection of the novel only luke-warm. 

In the end, I don't entirely understand why our generation would reject Caulfeild. The motivations may not be quite as pure and selfless as those rebellious first and second generation readers but the aspirations are still high, the fear of failure still looming over everyone. Is it because he's so imperfect? Is it because his social criticisms and opinions, hypocritical though they may be, are no longer relevant? I don't know. If J.D. California's novel does nothing else, the response to it has at the least forced me to re-examine Salinger's classic and reinvigorate my love for the novel. Holden Caulfeild is an icon of American literature, a character both unique and fully realized. It's not lack of timelessness that has caused the divide between Holden and the young reader, but a failing of the modern world that Holden continues on misunderstood. 


CC44 said...

On the other hand, I think it's a part of the point of Caufield that he remains "misunderstood." If he were neatly defined and easy to grasp, he wouldn't make an interesting, alluring, and enduring character. That's what makes the book a classic, that no one has clearly defined feelings about Holden. Not if they really pay attention, at any rate. I need to re-read the book as well... I first read it in freshman year of high school, and I'll say that 12 is too young an age to appreciate that book.

Kiriska said...

It's interesting to read this after I'd just written a post about timelessness. I've never been fond of Catcher in the Rye, but then, I first read it my sophomore year of college, so I was already a bit older than Holden. As such, I had a really, really hard time sympathizing with his character, especially when it was so obvious to me that he was being a flaming hypocrite. (He is every bit the phony that he wishes everyone else weren't; the fact that he doesn't realize this only serves to irritate me.) And you're right, he really doesn't seem to have changed by the end of the novel, which makes the end of the novel incredibly dissatisfying.

Is my dislike of Holden a result of my membership to generation Y? To some degree, I might agree with his point of view -- art school in particular is rife with "phonies" -- but I don't sympathize with his troubles. ...Maybe it's just because I loathed his way of speaking though, the way he repeated himself so often. I'm apparently easily turned off my those sorts of things -- my main reason for disliking the protagonist of Stephen Chbosky's Perks of being a Wallflower is the fact that he consistently and frequently misuses the word "incidentally."

Joe said...

AJ- In this instance when I say misunderstood, I'm referring to the fact that he isn't resonating with modern readers. I'm not suggesting that can or should be anatomically labeled, but that young, modern readers are failing to understand him at all. However, I do agree that any truly well drawn character is going to be impossible to pin down completely by anyone except (perhaps) the author.

Yidi- Holden does change in the novel-- look at the scene where he talks about being the catcher in the rye versus when his sister is on the carousel at the end. Falling is a huge motif in the novel. In everything that Holden does he's paralyzed by fear of failing (thus falling), particularly in being an adult. He doesn't try in school, He doesn't call the girl he likes, he doesn't sleep with the prostitute. He has to fall himself first to understand that failure is okay. Holden is otherwise so "immature" that I was surprised he hadn't changed MORE in my second reading. Sorry if that comes off a lecture-y, I just wanted to clarify my position.

I think in the above way, it's much easier to sympathize with Holden--but I understand why the character himself might be grating. I can't speak on it with any authority, but I'd imagine his hypocrisy is almost always tied to his insecurity. For example, when he asks the room neighbor he hates to hang out, etc. Even though he doesn't like him, he's still a teenager looking for acceptance, and will take it where he gets it. I kind of like the way he speaks, plus over-assertion is another sign of insecurity but again, I understand.