When Jerome David Salinger died late in January, the culture-watch website Arts & Letters Daily honored him with links to more than 60 memorials. Only world statesmen like Ronald Reagan out-obituaried him. Not bad, for a literary recluse whose fame rests largely on one novel.
For those few who haven't read it, The Catcher in the Rye covers one weekend in the life of Holden Caufield, the quintessential troubled teen, grieving over the death of his younger brother. Published in 1951 to mixed reviews, it has gone through countless editions and sold millions of copies. Salinger's true attitude toward his creation remains a mystery, but he never authorized a movie version and emerged into public view only to sue the publisher of a proposed sequel. Whatever his reasons, he secured a permanent mystique around a hero who will never grow up.
The genius of Holden was in giving youth a voice. It's not an attractive voice: cranky, petulant, wistful, sharp, and idealistic. But previously, the years between 13 and 19 were seen as a humorous concept (as in Booth Tarkington novels or Andy Hardy movies), or an idyllic interlude (à la Huckleberry Finn). Actual adolescence was an inarticulate roller-coaster ride before Holden articulated it, not just for one generation but for several.
Baby boomers were probably the most deeply affected. In his three-day odyssey through the cultural strata of New York City, Holden searches for truth and beauty but finds mostly despair and (his favorite word) phoniness. He is both critic and victim of his culture: a noble soul in sneakers who ends up in a sanitarium.
Perfect, for a generation coming of age during the civil rights movement and "imperialist" adventures in Vietnam, who swore they'd trust no one under 30. Until they got to be 30 themselves, when they raised the age of reliability by foisting the novel on their children and grandchildren.
The Noble Soul in Sneakers has appeared as hero in almost every annual crop of American Library Association award books: perceptive, funny, virginal, and foul-mouthed, always victimized in some way by adult hypocrisy or abuse. The narrator of Frank Portman's young-adult novel King Dork adopts a Holden-like voice while skewering the Holden cult among his teachers: "[T]hey're looking over your shoulder with these expectant smiles, wishing they were the ones discovering the earth-shattering joys of The Catcher in the Rye for the very first time. Too late, man. I mean, I've been around the Catcher in the Rye block. I've been forced to read it like three hundred times, and don't tell anyone but I think it sucks."
Why do some adults romanticize a time of life that almost no one wants to revisit? Though youth has its joys, those years might best be summed up as "Clueless in the Universe": cruelly self-aware but without perspective. Society seems equally confused about teens, allowing them to drive at 16 but not to rent a car until 23, encouraging sexual activity through entertainment and dress while discouraging it through abstinence programs, celebrating youthful alienation in literature but deploring it in the classroom.
The idealization of adolescence does it no favors. Psalm 103 offers a better attitude: "As a father shows compassion to his children . . ."
How patronizing! some might think. Why compassion? Because youth tends to preclude wisdom. Scientifically: Recent neurological research shows that the prefrontal cortex and its links to other parts of the brain are not complete until around age 25. And demonstrably: Good judgment takes time to develop. A heightened sensitivity to phoniness doesn't mean a teen has arrived; it only means he's begun. What he needs is what society is least equipped to provide: love and guidance.
But that isn't society's job anyway. Note the reference: "As a father shows compassion." All fathers and mothers have been there, and with a little reflection they'll remember what it's like. Compassion-even when tensions are high-is the most appropriate response, and far less patronizing than the Holden-cult.
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