A New Holden Caulfield

I just got done reading an article about the lack of appeal of the once famous character Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, (Thanks Brandi for the link!) and I have to say that I am in total agreement with what the teachers have to say about Salinger’s “classic” novel.  The Catcher in the Rye is required reading in many of the local high schools, and many of my students absolutely hate the book and its “whiny” hero (I think in literary circles, Holden Caulfield is considered an antihero).   Many people dismiss their complaints about the book by saying, “Kids don’t read today — that’s the problem.”  I believe that’s an argument for another post, but I have to say that while I liked The Catcher in the Rye, I too, had little in common with the disillusioned Holden Caulfield.  This is not to say that I didn’t like the book — I did.  But I never really understood the “big deal” about the work.   While Catcher was required reading in high school (I think I read the book when I was in 9th grade), many of us were busy reading the books by S.E. Hinton.  I can’t tell you how many times I read The Outsiders, and I still have the VHS movie for sentimental reasons (my mother got it for me as a birthday gift).  Even though I grew up in a factory town in rural PA, and didn’t have much in common with the gangs found in The Outsiders, I have to say that it was much easier to relate to Ponyboy Curtis than it ever was to relate to Holden Caulfield. 

With this in mind, I am wondering if there is still room in today’s world for literary heroes.  Would Harry Potter be a great literary hero?  Or the characters in the Twilight series? (That makes me shudder — but I will stop being judgemental; at least my students are reading!) Why are today’s readers seemingly more interested in fantasy worlds?  Or, is there another literary hero or heroine out there I am missing?

4 Comments »

  1. Justin Said:

    I believe The Catcher in the Rye is an age-specific novel. I tried reading it much too late. Like On the Road (and most of Kerouac in my opinion) novels like those have an expiration date. If you haven’t read them by age ____, you aren’t going to see what is important.

    Much of my reading was spoiled by being in the army. Certain books I loved as a kid no longer kept their hold. Books which should have been a revelation were just not going to keep my attention. I was 20 years old, on my own and reading Pablo Neruda, Ezra Pound, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I was flying all over the world and getting shot at. Holden Caufield just didn’t ring my bell even though I quite possibly identified with his dissatisfaction on several levels.

    The same thing happened with Kerouac. I ended up gravitating to Burroughs’ essays rather than his fiction. I think I just was not shown those books when I needed to see them. I think that happens a lot, and to some extent I think it happens on purpose. For me, I ended up reading a lot of things I never would have otherwise—even with my admittedly limited reading list.

  2. Karen Weyant Said:

    Yes Justin, I agree. I believe that different authors may “hit” us at different times of our lives. When I read Virginia Woolf in my 20’s, I didn’t understand the “big deal.” However, now I love and appreciate her work!

  3. Dale Said:

    I read a similar article this weekend, and it makes sense to me that this novel’s 15 minutes of fame has faded. Not only does Catcher need to catch you at the right age, I think its generational setting has passed. Even 14 – 16 yr olds don’t have the same sort of angst and existential befuddlement that existed in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Teens then were nobodies, still treated as children by most media and lacking any voice or model that wasn’t adult-sanctioned (as in Happy Days).
    I don’t think anyone gets through those years without a little existential wrestling, but now there are lots of models and teen voices rule at sites all over the internet, and entire TV channels are devoted to their interests — so it must be a different sort of angst than Catcher portrays.
    So I’m really interested in that question you raise: is there a new Holden Caufield (or a variety of them) out there that speaks to this generation?
    And, hey, wasn’t Caufield just a 60s Hamlet anyway?

  4. Karen Weyant Said:

    Hi Dale,

    Many people would argue that celebrities like Paris Hilton (yikes!) have taken the place of literary heroes. But I disagree. If you talk to our students, many would just make fun of her!

    But the Twilight appeal is baffling to me. Bella (I think that’s the main character) is just not that interesting to me. In light of this discussion, maybe I will have to read the book again!


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