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Mills: Three years after J.D. Salinger's death, what to make of Holden Caulfield?

What remains of

What remains of "The Catcher in the Rye" to interest readers college age and younger no longer has anything to do with the book's original link to a '50s generation at war with its conformist parents. Photo Credit: Janet Hamlin

After writer J.D. Salinger died at age 91, three years ago today, obituary after obituary described him as a recluse. Like so many who grew up on Salinger, I'm saddened by that label, but I have stopped fighting it.

What it captures, as the intervening years have made clear, is how much Salinger's cult status belongs to a bygone era. Two days after his death -- in an online forum that, by virtue of the speed with which it appeared, seemed almost spiteful -- a group of well-known critics argued that Salinger had lost his grip on his literary "grandchildren." It is time for those of us who resented that forum to concede that, while those critics should not be the last word on Salinger, they got a lot about his declining popularity right.

As a college teacher, I am encountering more and more students who have never read any Salinger, but even among those students who have read him (typically at a parent's or a teacher's urging), there is little sense, as there was for previous generations, of coming across an author who is a kindred spirit.

The isolation that brought Salinger such comfort after his initial success has little appeal to a generation that grew up with Facebook and is online every day. In the case of his 1951 masterpiece, "The Catcher in the Rye," and its narrator, Holden Caulfield, the reader-writer distance is especially wide. The students I teach find it hard to identify with the Holden that people like me expect them to admire.

Holden is not the sensitive kid my students want to be in an age when the Pew Charitable Trust makes headlines with a report that says little about the educational -- but lots about the financial -- benefits of college degree during a recession. Holden's well-known anxiety about what happens to the ducks in Central Park during the winter feels cloying in this context. From what my students know, the ducks are enormously resourceful, even in a cold snap like we've been having.

Holden's worry over being a virgin is still more dated as far as high school and college students are concerned. In this era of the hookup and the morning-after pill, it is hard for them to imagine that at age 16, a modern Holden would be lacking sexual experience. If Holden were cutting-edge by today's sexual standards, the fluidity of gender identity would be on his mind

Even Holden's determination to wipe the F word from a wall in his sister Phoebe's school now seems quaint to anybody near his age group. At a time when fewer and fewer words are shocking to the young, a precocious girl like Phoebe would certainly have encountered that word before.

As for Holden's treatment by a psychoanalyst, it amounts to an experience fewer and fewer students have these days. We are in the age of medication, not old-fashioned talk therapy. Adderall to improve his concentration in class, and if that failed, antidepressants to ease his unhappiness, are what Holden would be prescribed after being bounced from his fourth school.

What remains of "The Catcher in the Rye" to interest readers college age and younger no longer has anything to do with the book's original link to a '50s generation at war with its conformist parents. Salinger's novel, like any classic tale, has reached the point where it must stand or fall on its timelessness.


The good news is that 62 years after the book's publication, the classic status of "The Catcher in the Rye" is a plus for those of us who think it remains a book worth reading and teaching. In place of the book's cult status, we now have its substance, which starts with its opening sentence. Holden declares "the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap."

That awkward sentence is as much a personal and literary declaration of independence as Huck Finn's assertion that he is going to tell his life story without any of the "stretchers" Mark Twain employed in "Tom Sawyer." Holden's lead sentence warns us both that he is going to speak directly, as if carrying on a conversation, and that he is willing to disappoint us to get at the truth.

Holden keeps his word, even though, as he admits, he is often a liar. Holden turns out to be someone who hates "phonies" but who uses his hatred of them to defend the vulnerable: a category that for him includes not only his kid sister, but the homely daughter of the headmaster at the school he has just been kicked out of, as well as his sad summer neighbor, Jane Gallagher, whose stepfather drives her to tears just by his presence.

An admirer of "The Great Gatsby" and all authors who make him want to call them up on the phone, another anachronism to today's texting generation, Holden epitomizes F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Holden is pessimistic enough about the atomic bomb and world affairs to say that in case of another war, he is going to volunteer to sit on top of the bomb, but at the same time his deepest fantasy, as Salinger's title points out, is saving little children from going over a cliff.


In the end, Holden is undeterred by his many contradictions. And in an era like our own, so radically different from the prosperous -- yet confining -- post-World War II years Holden grew up in, what could be a better starting point than such openness? It makes clear that the great challenge for every generation is to make sure that it gets defined on its own terms.

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."