Monday, July 21, 2008

Postscript: In Defense of Catcher

Last word on Catcher in the Rye (I swear)...

It may seem strange that I feel the need to defend one of the most widely read-- and widely loved-- books ever. But, over the years, I've talked to many academics who poo-poo Catcher for a bunch of reasons.

One colleague told me she zips through Catcher as quickly as she can, because she just can't stand Holden. Another said the more he reads Catcher, the less he sees in it. I even remember my own A.P. English teacher, twenty years ago, warning not to use Catcher as an example on the essay for the A. P. Test. (Apparently, the book isn't "acamedic" enough.)

Hey, these are smart folks who know their literature, and I'm not going to say they don't have legitimate reasons for losing interest in Salinger. But I wanted to respond to the three of the knocks I've heard over the years against Catcher in the Rye:

"It's all voice."

Even folks who have soured on the book will acknowledge that, in the character of Holden Caulfield, Salinger created one of the most identifiable and iconic "voices" in all of literature. But, they say, once you get beyond the "voice," there's not much to the book.

I'm not sure I agree with that. First of all, let's not discount the talent it takes to create that "voice"-- to capture the speech of this teenager so perfectly that you can actually hear the character in your mind as you read it on the page. Think that's easy?

Of course, Salinger's commitment to creating this iconic voice meant some things would go by the boards. You won't find in Catcher the same kind of lyrical passages that you can find in, say, Gatsby or Beloved. You just won't. It's not that kind of book.

Besides, dismissing the book is "all voice" doesn't take into account all of the great literary stuff going on in there. Symbolism, ambiguities, paradoxes, unrealiability-- oh, Catcher's got 'em, all right, in spades!

"I hate Holden."

Other teachers I've talked to like the voice but can't stand the person speaking. Holden Caulfield's depressing, they say. He's self-absorbed. He lies all the time. He does nothing to help himself. In short, he's a terrible role model. And he never changes throughout the course of the book.

In truth, they're right, mostly. He is depressing, because he's depressed: he still hasn't worked through the death of his brother Allie; he feels let down by his parents and teachers; and, as he says over and over, he's "lonesome as hell." He's terribly flawed, but he tries to mask all his pain with his snappy banter and wisecracks. To me, all this makes Holden totally compelling.

But I can't say Holden doesn't change. He absolutely does. In the penultimate chapter, when he sees Phoebe reaching for the gold ring but doesn't try to stop her, thus realizeing that sometimes you have to let kids learn form experience (I won't quote the passage here, because I just did in my last post)-- that shows that he did learn something. It's a small change, but a significant one, because he ackowledges to himself he can't be the "catcher in the rye."

"It's too simple."

This complaint, an offshoot of the "It's all voice" dig, is not about the plot exactly (even though some students have complained that nothing really "happens" in the book); it's about the fact that, in their eyes, the book lacks sufficient literary chomps. I've heard some teachers wonder what they can "do" with the book, beyond the obvious "catcher in the rye"/ "falling from innocence" symbolism.

I guess I have two responses to this. First, I think there's a lot you can "do" with the book, especially in terms of symbolism. In addition to the "catcher" symbol, Salinger includes many
separate yet inter-related symbolks throughout the text:

-- The big glass cases from Chapter 16 symbolize for Holden a place where you can capture in stasis the flux of life. (To me, that's as important a symbol as the "catcher in the rye." But who's going to buy a book called The Big Glass Case.)
-- The ice imagery (the fish Horwitz the cab driver talks about that are "frozen in ice," the fact that Holden always talks about how cold he is) relates to the same theme represented by the big glass cases: preservation. After all, when you put things in ice, you preserve them, and that's what Holden wants: he wants to preserve moments, so nothing changes.
-- Holden's game, when he's drunk in Cahpter 20, of hiding his imaginary wound suggests-- to me, anyway-- that he's concealing his pain. He doesn't want anyone else to see how much he's hurting.

Now, come on! How can you say there's nothing "to do" with this book?

Secondly, I don't know if I'd brush off the "falling" imagery so cavalierly. The "fall from grace" theme is one of the most essential themes in literature, and Salinger does such a great job weaving examples of "falling" throughout the text, besides the big "catcher in the rye" symbol: when Holden leaves Pencey Prep, he slips on peanut shells and nearly breaks his crazy neck; when he goes to see Sunny the prostitute, he trips over his own suitcase; when James Castle falls out the window, he's wearing Holden's sweater; even Mr. Antolini says Holden is on the verge of a "horrible fall."

These references underscore that Holden is still falling form grace; he's an adult, but he's definitely not a child. He's still in between.

The funny thing is, I wonder if the disinterest some of these teachers are feeling for Catcher may represent a bit of a "fall" as well. Maybe the symbols seem "obvious" to us because we've read it so many times. Maybe we feel we've exhausted the text. Somehow, we need to re-capture the innocence of reading for the first time. Maybe we need to remember when we were high school students ourselves, when we weren't experts in litarure, when the "fall from grace" theme still seemed new to us.

Maybe we're too good at this "English teacher" stuff. Maybe, as readers, we've lost a little of our innocence over the years as well.

One last thing: I read Catcher for the first time the summer before my junior year in high school. I can honestly say that reading that book, at that time, changed my life. I had never read a book like that ever. And it sparked in me the first inkling that I could maybe teach literature for a living. I'm an English teacher because of Catcher in the Rye. (And I hope my students think that's a good thing!)

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