Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Salinger, J. D. "The Catcher in the Rye"

Salinger, J. D. "The Catcher in the Rye" - 1951

I read this classic when I was still in school. The perfect age to read about a rebellious teenager, one would think.

I didn't have a lot of books when I was little, so I had to borrow from our small village church library and our equally small school library (compared to today), so I wasn't very choosy, I would read whatever I got.

I didn't have much sympathy with Holden Caulfield, maybe because I went to a school with a lot of guys, was surrounded by a lot of guys at home, as well, maybe. I loved school and couldn't imagine anyone not to. So many factors.

All in all, you might have guessed it, I didn't like this one.

Comments from our book club members:
  • First read it almost 60 years ago and accepted Holden's angry negativity but envied his freedom and his opportunities. Rereading it for the discussion, I studied it carefully to try to pick up clues as to what he didn't say and to glean insights into the origins of his seemingly reckless and self-sabotaging behaviour. My impression is that Holden represents Salinger's mood and outlook after being thwarted by his father from pursuing a creative career followed by the overwhelming horror of what he witnessed during WWII. Holden's preoccupation with fitting in probably arose from Salinger's experience as the son of a Jewish immigrant at a posh private school and how such snobbish institutions did not value intellectual ability over birth, money, influence and sporting prowess. His need for control stemmed from Salinger's struggle to realise his talent while others tried to mould him into something he was not. In his later stories about the Glass family, Salinger rails against the unthinking, materialistic culture of post-war America, its failure to appreciate intellectualism and spirituality or to take sober heed of the grim lessons of WWII.
  • We had a very good discussion about the main character, his mental health and maturity level. I felt sorry for him as he clearly was depressed, anxious and had a trauma because of loosing his brother. I did not much like the way the story was written or the messy happenings, but I was glad to have read it and especially discussing it with the group was very interesting.
  • I had read this book many times before, but a long time ago. Reading it again, with some of the insights I have gained in the meantime, particularly after spending 10 years as a school teacher, I found it very sad - I felt very sorry for him. Also, the whole part of the story from leaving Pencey to telling Phoebe he is going to live in a cabin seems to me to be highly characteristic of a bipolar manic episode, which wasn't so clear to me on an earlier reading. I was particularly moved by the part where he was calling out to his dead brother to save him every time he stepped off the pavement. I always empathised with Holden (despite not being male, American or rich), but life experiences in the meantime have given me a greater understanding of his situation, especially in terms of bereavement.
  • I have read this book a few times over several decades and never liked it. When I was young I could not relate at all to Holden's privilege or foolishness. Through the years I have come to know people with elements of Holden in them who were mentally ill and so, I thought, still much different from me. When I looked at it again for this group, I found myself more able to respect Holden's views as valid perspectives on the difficulties of being young in a confusing society. I still don't like the book but it won't fade away.
Those are some great insights. Maybe one of the reasons for not liking the book was that he had all the possibilities I didn't have as a girl from a poor family who couldn't get much of a higher education for so many reasons.

This was also our book club read in May 2021.

From the back cover: 
"Since his debut in 1951 as The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with "cynical adolescent." Holden narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he's been expelled from prep school, in a slang that sounds edgy even today and keeps this novel on banned book lists. It begins,
'If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.'
His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies (the two of course are not mutually exclusive) capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation."

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