A few years ago, I received an email from a stranger requesting to “interview” me in conjunction with her School of the Arts project on The Catcher in the Rye. As it turned out, the interview ended up being a survey of written questions that I answered electronically.
Q. How old was I when I first read Salinger’s novel?
A. Old/young enough to have had my complexion likened to a pepperoni pizza.
Q. My initial reaction to the book?
A. Respectful underwhelment.*
Q. Did I identify with Holden?
A. Yes, we shared a nostalgia for childhood in a darkening world.
Q. Have I ever taught Catcher?
A. No, but it has appeared on my reading lists.
Q. How do I feel about censorship?
A. Liberal to a degree: yes, you may read Lolita; no, you may not read Justine.
Q. What do I think is theme of The Catcher in the Rye?
A. Adolescence is a particularly hard time for idealists who have begun to realize the
Himalayan heights of the bullshit they must conquer in order to succeed in the adult
*In tribute to my two sons’ degrees in German, the “w” in “underwhelment” is pronounced like a “v.”
The student’s query/project struck me as quaint. Certainly, hapless Holden’s naive attempt to efface the “fuck you” some churl has scratched into the wall of his sister’s elementary school no longer outrages parents of the Late Empire who blandly witness each January the obscene decadence of Super Bowl Halftime Extravaganzas. After all, the novel is a year older than I, so Holden (if he was fifteen in the year of Catcher’s publication) would have been born in 1936 and if not dead subsisting now off of Social Security and Medicare, a wizened old man in a wheelchair, his orange hunting hat cocked at a jaunty angle in some subsidized assistant living facility.
Last I heard of Catcher causing commotion was twenty years ago. This account comes from The Post and Courier.
Perhaps because Mr. Bagwell had pilfered from my former high school’s library and because I had grown up just down the street from him, I felt chagrined enough to send him the following correspondence (signed with my return address):
Answers: 1.D 2. E 3. F 4. A 5. G 6. I 7. C 8. J 9. H 10. B
At any rate, the student’s interview request prompted me to do some digging into what texts have now replaced Catcher in the Late Empire as catalysts for censorship, those books in 2011 that rile parents into pitching protests, so I googled “most challenged books,” and lo and behold, there in the top 10 was Catcher, along with that other adolescent mind-warper, To Kill a Mockingbird.
No, I was wrong. Some Late Empire parents still see Holden as a threat; this confused boy still scares shitless certain curtained consciousnesses that seek to shelter their darlings from the muck and mess of the ever looming out there.
The degradation of childhood in the Late Empire is a curious phenomenon. In some ways it ends way too soon (sex at fourteen) and lasts way too late (under-employed and living with mom at thirty-four). Books are considered more dangerous than movies, an unclothed human body much more offensive than graphic violence. However, I truly believe there is little to fear in a good book because it portrays life as it is lived. Virtually no one gets horny reading the sexually explicit passages from The Color Purple (nor, for that matter, desires to become a homosexual penguin after finishing And Tango Makes Three).
Of course, in the beginning, puritans considered any novel dangerous because novels dealt with worldly matters, tempting readers, especially vulnerable young ladies, from God’s Holy Word into the profane and vulgar concoctions of scribblers who entertained rather than edified. I don’t know about you, but essentially, my early reading was all about escape. I’d rip through every Hardy Boys cardboard bound adventure I could get my hands on wishing I lived in a town blessed with abandoned mills, haunted houses, and inept criminals. Television in those days consisted of two stations that played soap operas in the mornings and afternoons of scorching summer days so reading novels offered a way to slip through the looking glass into jungles where apemen swung through the trees with scantily clad English girls clinging to their backs.
Eventually, I graduated to biographies, books about dinosaurs and deep space, classics like Tom Sawyer and The Count of Monte Cristo, yet even reading those non-controversial tomes posed the danger of a sedentary, cloistered lifestyle that spurned the Wordsworthian glories of nature’s here and now. In other words, through books you could abandon your own precious life for the abstractions of the printed page, curl up in the bed of one of the houses houses below, and become deathly pale.
Of course, nowadays, computers have replaced books as the vehicles for escape, and now, thanks to cell phones, it’s not unusual to see someone walking on the beach oblivious to the plunging pelican as the beachcomber stares downward manipulating the screen of that tiny computer. Even though books may have blinded Milton, they are easier on the eyes than this infernal monitor you’re staring at.