The Spirit of Holden Caulfield Why The Rye Is Still So Powerful After 58 Years

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JD
Salinger has consulted his lawyers over an unauthorised "sequel"
to his classic novel The
Catcher in the Rye
. But 58 years after the story about a
disaffected teenager was published, why is it still so powerful
to so many people?

Holden Caulfield
does not like a lot of what he encounters. Much is dopey, corny,
lousy, crumby, vomity but most of all, phoney. Holden is surrounded
by phoneys, almost wherever he goes. It’s almost enough to make
him puke.

Holden is 16.
Expelled from his prep school for flunking too many subjects, he
travels to New York, his home town. He drinks, smokes, sees a prostitute,
is punched by her pimp, goes on a date, has a strange encounter
with a former teacher, spends a fair amount of time in the park,
and really does not a great deal else.

Mostly he ruminates
on the people he meets, people he met in the past and his dead brother.
Plot is in short supply. The Catcher in the Rye is a novel
where not very much happens.

And yet this
story of a couple of days in the life of a teenager has sold tens
of millions of copies since its release. There are not many other
novels from the 1950s that can be found persistently hovering around
the top 100 bestseller lists.

Rise of
teenager

Fans of the
novel regard it as the defining work on what it is like to be a
teenager. Holden is at various times disaffected, disgruntled, alienated,
isolated, directionless, and sarcastic.

The book’s
publication in 1951 came at the dawn of the age of the teenager.
A new social category, newly economically empowered and hungry for
culture, was fed by music, films and novels. William Golding’s Lord
of the Flies
also came propitiously, in 1954.

"It absolutely
speaks to that moment the teenager emerges as a recognisable social
group," says Dr Sarah Graham, author of Salinger’s The Catcher
in the Rye and a Routledge guide on the same subject.

"Before
that people went through their teenage years with no sense it was
a particular kind of identity. It is the first novel of the modern
teenage years."

The fact that
teenagers were all in high school for the first time, instead of
working and providing for their family from an early age, gave them
time to think. And to mope.

"Leisure
gave teenagers time to reflect on where they were going," says
Dr Graham, of Leicester University. "The idea of existential
angst in some way draws from Catcher in the Rye as much as
the novel reflects it. There is a strong dialogue between the book
and the teenage experience – they are mutually shaping."

Read
the rest of the article

June
9, 2009

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