-By, Haley Kwuon
Regardless of your personal opinions on the novel, crossing paths with Holden Caulfield, our protagonist from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, at some point in your high school career is inevitable. The story is set in New York in the 1950s and follows 16-year-old Holden through his narration of some “madman stuff” that went down in the days of his winter break and, supposedly, landed him in a mental institution. Holden recalls his experiences as he learns to face loss, romance, school, sex, adults, grief, and phonies, a recollection that provides the reader with insight into some of the dos and don’ts of adolescence and young adulthood. In 1951, by its second week of publication, the book had climbed to the top of the New York Times Best-seller list. The novel is surrounded by a mass of controversy, considered both a classic for its timeless themes and bowdlerized in many schools for its profanity and darkness. Here at Winsor and Belmont Hill, students read Salinger’s novel in 9th grade, arguably the most appropriate age to understand and relate to the novel, as Holden reveals his, admittedly poor, solutions to the typical issues of the common teenager. Is this really a novel about a boy coming of age in the 1950s, or is it a homage to the follies that teens endure and their various strategies to maneuver through their adolescence and into young adulthood? There have been various debates as to whether the book truly fits the requisite for “Great American Literature”; among those is the question of whether The Catcher should be a classic. A classic, according to Mark Twain, is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” While the story is chock-full of symbolism, themes, motifs, and possible essay topics, opinions regarding whether this book should be considered a classic vary greatly within our own community.
Indi Aufranc, W’20, believes that, while “it may have been regarded as a very experimental and “edgy” novel when it was first published, it hardly stands out from other books today.” She believes that The Catcher is “no longer relatable or relevant to teenagers as a coming of age book.” According to her, “Holden undergoes very little character development, he is not an inspiring character or role model, and he can be boring, even unbearable, to read about at times. [She feels she is] not gaining anything from reading this book, and, while there are strong themes in the book (coming of age, masculinity, sexuality), there are many other books that freshman and high schoolers could analyze for similar themes that would be better.” I agree that teenagers will find it increasingly less relatable as time passes. Our societal views have drastically changed regarding topics that were considered “risky” to include in the novel, like mental conditions and concern for the impact that our high school years will have on our futures. As the rising generation of teens, our lives, goals, and dreams are simply different from those of the 50s. Armin Thomas, BH’17, believes that “it was incendiary when it was published in the 50s and is a seminal novel about growing up and coming to terms with fate and such,” but he believes that this provocative rebellion against the traditional literary norm is still prominent, making the book a classic, regardless of our modern society and views.
“The novel is dated in parts, both in situations and language. While the idea of coming of age is timeless and universal, the novel tells the story of a wealthy, white male in a very traditional community,” says Mrs. Markenson. She also believes that The Catcher is a classic “in the sense that it has been taught so broadly for a while. It has become one of those books that everyone thinks high school students should read, mostly because everyone [her] age read it when [they] were in high school.” That being said, she couldn’t possibly believe that literature should be tempered to appease the masses, but rather let the minds of youthful exuberance identify with the characters and consequences of growing up.
Just as the opinions of the literary community vary, the Winsor-Belmont Hill community members will continue to praise and lambaste J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, seeing it for the masterful work that it is sometimes considered or as an overwrought, outdated plea of youthful longing.