A Teacher’s Recommendation for Holden Caulfield

image courtesy of Early Bird Books

Just for the hell of it, since I’m soon to become a YA author, I decided to reread A Catcher in the Rye.[1] Although Salinger wrote the novel for adults, it was until recently a mainstay in high school English curriculums. However, because sixteen-year-old first-person narrator Holden Caulfield frequently spews vulgarities, occasionally references sexual encounters, smokes like a fiend, and uses alcohol to excess, the novel has also been a favorite target of priggish parents demanding it be banned, not only from classrooms, but from libraries as well.[2]

As a teacher, I never explored Catcher in class but did include it on ninth grade independent reading lists. Unfortunately, most of my freshmen didn’t like the book – some even hated it – because they considered Holden too negative, too judgmental.[3] I will add that my former school lacked (and still does) a vibrant counterculture to counterbalance the preppies, jocks, and Jesus followers who dominate social life. Perhaps if we had had a more diverse student body, more hipsters and out-of-the-closet gays, old Holden would have had more admirers.

Hey, I’ll admit Holden can be off-putting. He’s self-centered, whiny, and way too judgmental, but he’s not self-righteous. A frequent target of his own disapprobation, he acknowledges his own immaturity, admitting that although “seventeen,” he “sometimes acts as if [he’s] about thirteen.”  Nevertheless, he’s not, as  Kaitlyn Greenridge, claims, an asshole:

I think it’s a detriment to how that book is taught that so many people feel like [Holden’s assholedom is] somehow a new revelation that nobody has talked about before, when, hopefully, a teacher teaches that book as like, this guy is an a-hole. We’re going to read about him. He’s going to piss you off. And we’re going to talk about how the author made that happen on the page and what are the things that are making you mad about this character. And then, hopefully, the next level is, you’re all the same age as this character, so what are the things that this character is doing that’s similar to what you are doing right now . . .

My go-to guy when it comes to asshole designation is Aaron James, whose book Assholes, a Theory defines an asshole as someone who “systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages […] out of an entrenched sense of entitlement” and who “is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.”[4] This definition certainly doesn’t describe Holden, who is rather generous. For example, he lends his coat to his roommate Stradlater and his turtleneck to an unpopular student, a mere acquaintance.[5]  Later, unprompted, he donates ten dollars, a considerable amount of money in those days, to nuns he encounters at a diner.  Also, he’s not at all vindictive. He may be many things, but according to Aaron James (and I-and-I), he’s no asshole.

I950s teenagers hanging out

Okay, what is he then?

He’s a depressed, alienated adolescent grieving for his beloved dead brother; he’s a fallen idealist who treasures childhood innocence but has been pushed beyond the brink of coping – in other words, he’s a crazy, mixed-up kid, literally a crazy mixed-up kid.

When I read the novel as an adolescent, I identified with Holden because I, too, was a lapsed idealist, a developing cynic angry that the “real world” didn’t adhere to the platitudinous blandishments of teachers and coaches who told us the good guys always come out on top. Of course, it was stupid of me to be so naive. After all, I had floated down the Mississippi with Huck and Jim, hung out on an island with Ralph and Piggy, and come to think of it, had sat in a segregated waiting room for my doctor’s appointments.

We don’t know what will become of Holden. Although I don’t find the ending optimistic, I do wish him the very best.

I’ll give him the last paragraph:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

[1] Reckless confession. I’m not a fan of YA. One reason I didn’t enjoy teaching seventh grade was having to spend hours in a house on Mango Street and other adolescent haunts.

[2] Ezra Pound’s phrase, “vice crusaders farting through silk” comes to mind.

[3] Most of my students, like Holden, were wealthy, so at least they didn’t complain that he should be thankful for his cushy life.

[4] See Donald Trump.

[5] The acquaintance, James Castle, throws himself out of a dorm window while being mercilessly bated by a gang of dorm-mates, who do qualify as assholes. Although Holden doesn’t try to intervene, he’s sympathetic. He’s no hero and more than once describes himself as “yellow.”

4 thoughts on “A Teacher’s Recommendation for Holden Caulfield

  1. A student teacher put Catcher in my hands in the spring of my 9th grade. In the fall we were as part of the standard curriculum dealing with Pip from Great Expectations. I preferred Holden by many, many miles. By the way, I taught high school English from 1980-2013.

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