J.D. Salinger died two weeks ago. After taking a moment to mourn the loss of his gregarious personality, we dug out the battered copy of The Catcher in the Rye we swiped from high school. We said goodbye to J.D. by saying hello to Holden again.
It’s been 59 years since Catcher was published. Over 250,000 paperback copies are still sold every year. It ranks on all those major lists: Best of, Required Reading, Banned Books, Most Important American Works Ever Of All Time.
What is so captivating about Salinger and his Pencey Prep reject? Catcher is the rambling internal monologue of a 17 year old, the kind of thing you think you’d be over by adulthood. But clearly we’re not over it; we must still be asking questions that this book tries to answer.
Despite its obvious staying power, Catcher has become shorthand for an angsty adolescent phase. After decades as a seminal text, Catcher seems to have been demoted. It’s like the marijuana of American Lit: you read it, it opens all the doors and you move on. Salinger’s is the rite-of-passage book, a kind of demeaning label. A literary rest stop.
Salinger wrote one incredible book, nine haunting stories, and a couple of other novels that the more alternative among us claim are better than his classic — even though Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction is, actually, not that good. Does he deserve to matter now?
Hold Salinger up next to the rest of the Great American Novelists and he barely registers on the prolific scale. Ernest Hemingway, for all his bullfights and “darling, isn’t it awfully dull outside,” published over 20 books; John Steinbeck cranked out 31 novels — and he was writing longhand, in pencil. Even if Salinger were just duking it out for King of the Irreverents, he’d probably lose to Kurt Vonnegut.
You could say that, by lack of output alone, Salinger is overrated. If Catcher didn’t leave a crater-sized impact on your life, you just don’t get what the hype is about. But if it did, you’re part of a huge group of people who describe reading Catcher in this charged, nostalgic way, like how you taste your first kiss every time you talk about it.
Deb Burnham, associate undergraduate chairwoman of the English department, is one of those. “Oh Lord! I remember exactly where I was when I read it. I was 13. I was babysitting, and I was so absorbed in it that when there was a knock on the door, I screamed,” she said. “I was a reader, I’d been totally taken up by a zillion books. This was something really different … I couldn’t have told you then why it was so magical.”
If you’re thinking “magical” is a professorial euphemism for “he swears and writes about hookers,” you are (sadly?) mistaken. “I think there were probably people for whom sex and language was part of the appeal,” Burnham said. “But I think there is something so profound, not connected to shock, that transcends anything time based.”
For Burnham, Catcher is not something you grow out of; it’s something you grasp young and grow into: “It’s obviously a desert island book. You never want to be without it,” she said.
Maybe that’s the best litmus test. That this book is loved, impulsively and madly and at times without rationale, maybe makes up for the fact that Salinger didn’t really write much else. Catcher has a hold on us — adults included — even though it seems on the surface to be a book for and about teenagers. That’s all the more reason for Catcher to resonate with you for your entire life. After all, who among us ever stops being a teenager? Maybe Salinger only gave us one good book. Maybe one is enough.
Jessica Goldstein is a College junior from Berkeley Heights, N.J. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Say Anything normally appears on alternate Wednesdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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