Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Holden Caulfield, My Literary Frenemy

My move from adolescence to adulthood was pretty hurried. There wasn't a stereotypical set of years known as "my 20's" where I explored life and figured out who I was; my first child was born three weeks before my 20th birthday and the next two came by the time I was 25. Exploring life and figuring out "who I am" started happening closer to age 30 and in a mess of chaos, as by then I had a husband, three children, a stable career backed by two degrees, a home, and unanswered dreams filling my life. Looking from my husband's experience probably puts the hurried aspect into better perspective. The year he turned 19 he graduated from high school, he got his first full time job, his first child was born, he got married, he found a new (better) full time job. From there he worked night shift for nine years, watching our small children during the day, sleeping afternoons and evenings, and heading back out to work at night. Those years we saw each other on weekends and the few minutes before he went to bed and when he got ready for work. Things have amazingly smoothed out since then, although looking back we sometimes wonder how we made it!

It's an overcoming story of sorts to be sure, the kind Americans in particular love to tell and are proud to repeat, but it's also this experience that clouds my view of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Somehow, I made it out of high school in the late 90's, as well as through my B.S. in English Education by 2002, without reading The Catcher in the Rye. I'm still not sure how that happened, being the literary giant that the book is. But grad school (an M.Ed in English between 2006-2008) tripped me up and I ended up with Catcher as required reading twice. I was excited...until I started reading.

The Catcher in the Rye flashes back on the story of Holden Caulfield, a teenage boy with an inability to get his life together. Holden stands on the brink of adolescence and all that catapults you into adulthood, which causes him to grasp at his quickly and undeniably slipping childhood innocence. Told through his unreliable first person narration, the story flows in a stream-of-consciousness thought process, giving it a unique narration and writing style. I don't want to say too much and possibly ruin the story for anyone because it's a book that when you love it, you LOVE it. On the other hand, for those like me, it's a book that when you hate it, you HATE it.

And hate it I did. Upon first reading, I came to class with a list of reasons Holden Caulfield is a whiny baby who's life isn't worse off than anyone else's and just needs smacked around a little to set him straight. "Class" consisted only of my favorite professor, Dr. Ford, as I took YA Lit as an independent study that semester. Dr. Ford, technically retired from teaching, had read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time as a teenager and loved Holden Caulfield. She asked how I couldn't help but feel sorry for him? At that point in time my answer was along the lines of, life throws curve balls and you have to step up to the plate if you want to make it work. The "suck it up" work ethic life had demanded of me thus far. (Really, think in terms of any "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" metaphor there.) At age 26, with kids ages 6, 4, and 1 year-old, working a full time teaching job, attending grad school, and practically living as a single parent, all I could see was that whiny, not-so-poor Holden Caulfield needed a swift kick to knock some sense into him.

But time and experience has a way of smoothing our rough edges and re-presenting thoughts for reevaluation. A few years after grad school, the high school I teach at moved me from Junior High to Senior High, where I would teach American Literature...and yep, you guessed it, Holden Caulfield was waiting for me. I avoided him the first year I taught American Lit, but by second year, I pulled the book off the shelf and jumped in. I didn't like him any better, but I noticed my students did. By year three I couldn't ignore how much some students identified with Holden's teenage angst and true confusion by life. 

I've taught The Catcher in the Rye at two different points in the school year this time around. What do I think of Holden now? I can say that I do, at least, feel bad for him. He does have a valid reason for his upset. I can recall my own teenage angst and will even admit that it's possible that Holden and I would be friends had I read Catcher as a teen, before adulthood descended heavily upon me. Hitting the world of "who am I" a few years beyond my original meeting with Holden, I can look back and understand his confusion between what you feel and what the world demands. What you want and what you have to do...or do you? I see Holden through my students' eyes more often than not, using my original impressions more as a devil's advocate to see how and if they will defend him. Most usually do.

So, until next year Holden, you and I will remain as we are. Not quite friends, but no longer enemies.






11 comments:

  1. I've heard before that if you didn't read Catcher as a teenager, then it's too late. I may have heard that from John Green but I'm not sure. Anyway, that's why I'm hesitant to give it a shot. I don't have a lot of tolerance for whiney butts either. But I am sure that I will read it. If for no other reason than to say that I have. But if I'm honest....I am interested....

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    1. I've heard the exact same thing about the book and age of the reader. Cause I one point your life becomes "suck it up and do it" and we become intolerant of those who don't. If you're interested, give it a try!

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  2. Wonderful essay, Jennine! I will definitely share this on my Fictional 100 facebook page. Holden is #99 on my list (largely because of his recency competing with the likes of Odysseus and Hamlet). I also found myself sympathizing with Holden more when I was an adult. Perhaps I was out of the adolescent danger zone, when Holden's attitudes seem to trigger such powerful reactions of either identification or recoil. When I read the book later on, I saw that Holden changes during the story, and learning to take another's point of view into account (namely, his sister's) is a big part of that change. It's great that your students' reactions have been so meaningful and influential over the years in your own responses to Holden as a character.

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    1. It's one of those things about life - when you teach something, you are often being taught at the same time.

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    2. And thank you so much for the shares!

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  3. That's a great essay :)

    I haven't read the book yet, but going by your own impressions, I don't think I would have liked it had I read it in my teens. I had the same basic "suck it up and do it" attitude back then. Maybe, if I read it now, I will enjoy it for the YA novel that it is.

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    1. Thanks! Hopefully you will enjoy now!

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  4. It was interesting to read your experience of Holden Caulfield and The Cathcher in the Rye. I came to it late too, I think I was early twenties when I first read it and whilst I didn't LOVE IT, I did like it.

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    1. Oh good - someone in the middle with me :)

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  5. Oh gosh, this is an interesting write-up! Catcher in the Rye is a book I have been meaning to read forever. I promise! And maybe I won't be able to identify with him either. Who knows? It will be interesting to read, I guess, as an adult.

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    1. Yes, I'd love to collect responses from people based on age when they first read the book. Would make an interesting study.

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