To start, I am not arguing a defense to teach The Catcher In The Rye. For the purpose of this essay, I acknowledge the censors reasons for desiring that this novel be banned from the shelves of the American high school’s library – lewd language, sexual encounters and innuendos and thematic indecency. I counter that with the argument that most American teenagers experience much more intense vulgarity systematically as they scroll their twitter feeds than in the confines of their imaginations molded by the words of J.D. Salinger. Therefore, we can concede that The Catcher in the Rye has merit and should be taught.
This, is a defense of Holden Caulfield.
Holden Caulfield, though fictional, is alive and breathing in all of us. He is the essence of adolescence: feelings of unrequited love, the dichotomy of hating the phoniness of society juxtaposed with our own sense of conformity and desire to belong; he masks his emotions only to have the emotional dam break; he doesn’t have the emotional depth to adequately deal with it, just like us. Holden questions his life’s purpose. He desires to be better.
Holden is the teenager inside us all.
He fears and feels deeply. He desperately wants to be accepted and at the same time frantically desires to be his own person. He was the first hipster. He admonishes the outside world for being fake but lies to either make himself look better or amuse himself. He is figuring himself out and speaking truths that we all think. He doesn’t understand adult ideas – like sex and drinking – and yet desperately seeks to both live in the adult world and protect the innocence of his younger sister (and symbolically the children of the world). His innocence was lost at a young age and he is having difficulty navigating life. He has no compass in his parents. He doesn’t seem to have a solid sense of what he believes other than that he wants to maintain the innocence of the world. Holden is completely disconnected from reality.
Salinger is able to create a character that fully engages life by disconnecting. This strategy is seen in all of us – especially during adolescence. We disconnect from our world projecting onto everyone else our insecurities, our fears, our hopes. Holden Caulfield transcends the decades because we all can relate to his emotions. We want to be liked. To be kissed. To feel safe. We want to be adults and enjoy the freedom that brings and in the very same breath we want to feel safe and secure and loved. We don’t care about anything and care about everything all at the same time and just when you think you can’t reconcile any of the fake, obnoxious bitterness that is the world around you, you fall of the cliff into the rye.
If you are lucky, Holden catches you in Allie’s poem covered baseball mit and throws you back, for a little longer, to enjoy a few lasting moments of your childhood.
Not liking Holden is like not liking yourself.