First thing first, I know that that is a cartoon rendering of Thomas Pynchon. I wouldn’t want anyone thinking that I’m confused about my Simpsons episodes or my reclusive authors*. But pictures of reclusive authors are hard to find and honestly, if The Simpsons could have worked it out, I’m sure that sign would read “J.D. Salinger’s House: Come on In.” And today is a day when we’re remembering the reclusive author of our high school years, so you’ll have to forgive me the inaccuracy of the picture and appreciate the spirit in which it was posted.
Like many people who survived high school, I read The Catcher in the Rye in English class my junior year. The big life lesson I learned from the book was that that people who protest books are likely to have never read them. On the literary front, I found that I liked Holden Caulfield. He sounded like an actual teenager and not an approximation of an teenager written by an adult. And I’ve found that many of the students I teach have read and enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, which is pretty easy to understand. Unlike much of what is assigned in high school English, it’s relatable and not Shakespeare**.
The power of The Catcher in the Rye, I think, is in its uniqueness, especially an audience already hardened by texts that seem old-fashioned and feel more like chores than reading***. For a good number of high school students, the novel captures their imaginations in a way that few things in an English classroom (or much of high school, for that matter) do and they feel less alone knowing that on the page Holden is saying much of what they’ve been thinking about the world. But probably the best thing about The Catcher in the Rye is that it can be a five-year book – something you pick up once every five years and basically discover all over again. The second time I read it, I understood who Holden was and that I wasn’t him and I didn’t want to be him. But I could sympathize with him, because the things that were going on in Holden’s life were making him lose his shit. Unlike the first time I read the book – where I only saw the world through Holden’s eyes – the second time I read it I saw the world around him and how he was going to have a lot of trouble in that world. And the power of the novel comes from the effects of both of those readings, which are vital functions of literature in the first place – to make us feel less alone and to help us understand other people. The Catcher in the Rye does both of those things, and continues to do that for generations of readers****.
So, it’s no surprise that people were genuinely moved when an author who lives out of the public eye and who hasn’t produced anything new in decades passed away. While Salinger doesn’t fill our bookshelves, he produced a work that many of us understand, acknowledge to be good, and that many readers feel explain the world at a time when little else manages to do so. Because seriously, most teenagers can’t see that Holden’s losing it. Because they’re feeling a little desperate themselves and Holden’s genuine outrage at the world comes as a bit of a comfort. Because a lot of adults are phonies and that becomes pretty clear as one starts to make the move from the kids’ table to the adult table.
But enough with the seriousness. While there have been many tributes to J.D. Salinger and his work today, I will offer you the one that I found to be short, direct, and affectionate. Here is “Bunch of Phonies Mourn J.D. Salinger” from The Onion.
* Pynchon’s voice is featured on an episode in the fifteenth season titled “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife” in which Marge writes a romance novel. Pynchon is asked to give a blurb for the book. Also, I think the episode is hilarious, especially as the plot of Marge’s romance novel about whaling unfolds.
** My apologies to Shakespeare fans. But, as I’ve tried to certain parties in the past, Shakespeare in high school is not an enjoyable experience because 1.) Everyone’s down on it, 2.) The teachers assume you’re not smart enough to get it so they sort of build it up to be something impossible to tackle, 3.) It’s not cool, and 4.) For the most part, you only get to read tragedies and honestly, the comedies would probably work better with teenagers.
*** Again, I’m not getting down on Shakespeare (or Arthur Miller, since I was sort of thinking of him too), but King Lear for 17 year-olds? A very rare teenager finds him or herself in that play. And while I’d like to think I was mature, I was definitely not that kid. And I suspect that most kids are not that kid.
****Fun fact: My dad’s copy of The Catcher in the Rye from high school is sitting next to my keyboard right now.