The Arizona Desert Lamp

Dump the Catcher?

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 26 August 2008

GOOD Magazine (because, you know, it’s good) makes the case against teaching Catcher in the Rye:

Sure, J.D. Salinger’s novel was edgy and controversial when teachers first put it on their syllabi. But that was 50 years ago. Today, Salinger’s novel lacks the currency or shock value it once had, and has lost some of its critical cachet. But it is still ubiquitously taught even though many newer novels of adolescence are available.

Furthermore, Catcher in the Rye is not a book that lends itself towards an English class. During those years when J.D. Salinger still loomed over my limited literature horizon, there was a clear distinction between those who loved the book, and those who hated it with a passion. These two camps correlated almost perfectly with another dichotomy: those who read the book on their own, and those who were forced to read it for class.

But the broader question is why “books about adolescence” are taught in the first place. There is something preciously ironic about requiring students to read a book about teenage rebellion and adolescent angst. When this book is discovered on one’s own, it resonates: “Yes! This book is so old, and yet it completely resonates with my own life!” If it’s mandated by grumpy old Mr. Jenkins, though, the reaction is instead, “This is so stupid. This doesn’t have anything in common with how I feel,” a reaction perhaps more of a defensive measure against a story that hits too close to home. Ultimately, it accomplishes very little; 1984 elicits a far greater response.

No, the book shouldn’t be taught in classes; but neither should the many other works that are taught to “engage” students, including the ones recommended by Ms. Trubek. Return to the classics, instill a sense of seriousness in the classroom, and hope to God that the kids are engaged enough to continue reading outside of their studies.

(Besides, Salinger’s short stories are much better.)

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4 Responses

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  1. Justyn Dillingham said, on 26 August 2008 at 4:33 pm

    I’m torn. On the one hand, CITR probably is poorly taught in the public schools (as are most books) and would benefit from being removed from the K-12 canon. On the other hand, I’d make a strong case for its lasting merit as a work of literature. It struck a chord with me as an adolescent, of course (and it did help that I discovered it on my own), but now that I’m older I can appreciate Salinger’s wit, sense of narrative structure (one early reviewer remarked that it was as well constructed as an Austen novel), and powerfully ambivalent attitude toward his hero. Those qualities are missing from most modern novels, let alone the feeble Salinger imitations the article cites. I also think it emerges as a rather different novel if you read it in the context of its time, rather than the rather kitschy context (James Dean, Kerouac, Chapman, Hinckley, et al) it came to occupy. Most people forget that it was written right after WW2 by a veteran who, by all accounts, was deeply scarred and permanently distressed by his horrific experiences — and proceeded to write a deceptively light book about a suicidal teenager. No less a critic than Faulkner noted that CITR is really a tragedy about someone “who tried to enter the human race, but found no human race to enter.”

  2. Evan Lisull said, on 26 August 2008 at 11:15 pm

    I really should go back and re-read the book; it’s been a long time, and I’ve never considered it in the framework of its time.

    What lit class do you see this fitting in? I could almost see a post-WWII American lit course, covering all of the good writers that get passed over in most core English classes — Kerouac & Ginsberg, Salinger, maybe some Easton Ellis, Updike, maybe even a Eugenides . . . hell, call it “The American Idea in Literature” and stick a Tier 2- Arts label on it. There’s a Gen Ed I could get excited about.

  3. Wonder Watermelon said, on 14 September 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Having read the GOOD Magazine article against teaching “The Catcher in the Rye” in schools, I’m intrigued by how you took a completely different approach to advocate a similar change. While I find your remarks interesting and insightful, I would have to differ with your view on the literature that ought to be taught in schools.

    I’m somewhat amused by your final remark that we should “return to the classics.” What makes you so quick to dismiss “The Catcher in the Rye” as a classic? I feel as if you have this perception that a “book about adolescence” is somehow lower caliber literature. The beauty of “Catcher” lies in the fact that it can be read from so many levels, somewhat like an onion. On the surface you have a novel about a relatively affluent, white teenager dissatisfied with the world around him, but as you continue peeling away, the novel has extensive historical and literary significance. Sure, the book may not have the eloquence and sophistry of a Jane Austen novel, but the novel is still full of symbolism, and even more noticeably, the timeless themes warrant its designation as a classic. If the adolescent subject matter of “Catcher” somehow subverts its literary merit, then you could argue that “Catcher” isn’t exclusively a teen book. The biggest aspect of adolescence that Holden focuses on is change, and I highly doubt people just suddenly stop changing when they reach adulthood.

    What’s even more special about “Catcher” is how revolutionary it was for its time period. Today we take teen fiction for granted, but with the Red Scare and McCarthyism, the 1950s were characterized by conformity. Before “Catcher,” young adult literature really hadn’t evolved as its own genre. Given the historical significance of “Catcher” in the evolution of literature, omitting it from high school curricula would offer students an incomplete view of literature. If the purpose of education is to enlighten students, then why should we keep them in the dark with a perception that all the acclaimed literary works are hard to understand and irrelevant to adolescence? High school students in particular need exposure to literature that they find accessible in order to increase their interest in reading.

    Now that I’ve shared my two cents on the literary merit of “Catcher,” I’ll admit that initially your remark that forcing teenagers to read a novel about teenage rebellion is ironic was pretty convincing. However, after further contemplation, I wouldn’t say that reading “Catcher” in school would ruin the novel for students. There might be a correlation between students who hate “Catcher” and those who were forced to read it in school, but let’s not forget what we learned in Logical Fallacies 101 – correlation does not imply causation. From my personal experiences, that certainly wasn’t the case – a decent proportion of my class liked the novel and had never read it on their own. Besides, no novel is universally loved. Even if “Catcher” weren’t taught in schools, I’m certain there will be those (in my opinion crazy) few who think Holden Caulfield is nothing but a whiny teenager. Meanwhile, for those of us who do connect with the novel, I don’t think a single teacher could ruin it – literature speaks for itself.

    So I’m sorry, as interesting as your argument is, I’ll have to pass on “dumping the Catcher.” After all, who would dump Holden Caulfield? If I weren’t a (wonder) watermelon, I’d marry him! 😉

  4. Evan Lisull said, on 15 September 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Good points, all. And I think this also ties in nicely with Justyn’s comment about its importance as a post WWII novel. My issue comes from the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, it is never taught this way. It is taught mostly, as you mentioned, as 50% “Look, you aren’t the first teenagers to have angst!”, and 50% “Oh, symbolism! What do the birds in the pond symbolize?” I generalize to make a point, that even if it is a good book, it is being taught in entirely the wrong way.

    As far as formal teaching “ruining” the book, I am speaking from personal experience. I read the book a few years before I was taught it in school, and loved it. However, as we spent two months slogging through the thing in class, it was an incredibly dull experience (only a public high school could make J.D. Salinger seem dull).

    I realize that a call for the “classics” is very vague; I’m still working out exactly how I’d like this curriculum to work. Catcher in the Rye is a classic, no doubt, but there are many classic works that should NOT be taught, simply in the interest of time. Would you really say that a student cannot have a complete education in literature without having read Catcher? That seems to me to put an undue influence on the work. If it’s style and symbolism that we’re looking for, then I really am adamant that “9 Stories” (specifically, ‘Bananafish’) should be given precedence.


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