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Missions and Assignments: Back to School With Holden Caulfield

Stuart Mitchner

For American kids who are looking forward to or dreading the first day of school, the best-known and most widely read fictional teenager is probably the bespectacled Brit with magic powers and not the depressed, wise-cracking New York teenager who just got kicked out of school. Kids of all ages have taken to Harry Potter, but J.D. Salinger's failed student has been the alter ego for generations of readers and today Holden Caulfield stands beside Jay Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn as one of those characters who has become so much a part of our consciousness it seems almost unneccessary to mention the titles of the novels that gave them to us.

The Catcher in the Rye is conspicuously absent from the suggested summer reading lists for grades nine through 12 at Princeton High School, no doubt because the listmakers know that it's either already been read or is sure to be an assignment in one class or another when the semester begins. Of course not everyone is introduced to Holden Caulfield in the classroom. The Catcher is a book parents suggest to kids who hate to read or can't be bothered to take on "serious" books.

"Assignment" is not a word to inspire gladness in a student's heart. It suggests duty, deadlines, study questions, and tests, among numerous other things that Holden couldn't deal with at Pencey Prep. What helps Catcher survive the onus of "assignment" is that its narrator and protagonist is close to the age of high school readers and speaks to them in an appealingly dissident voice right from the first sentence, with its casual dig at serious literature ("and all that David Copperfield crap"). It doesn't hurt that Holden is funny and sees the world in a uniquely funny way. Anyone who can read the first chapters for the first time with a straight face will probably sit through the Marx Brothers or Saturday Night Live without cracking a smile.

Holden's story, however, is more than funny. "A Good Book Should Make You Cry," Laura Miller's piece in last Sunday's issue of the New York Times Book Review, discusses how schools are feeding teens and even pre-teens a diet of problem novels featuring protagonists from the same age group facing life-or-death challenges. Catcher can also be read as a problem novel. For all the fun to be found in Holden¹s voice, his take on phonies, his swearing, his hilarious accounts of corny Hollywood movies, this kid is seriously depressed. Today the authorities at Pencey would have put him on Paxil or Prozac or Ritalin.

I'm glad I discovered The Catcher in the Rye on my own. My senior English teacher would have spoiled Salinger for me. The one truly positive teacher-mandated reading experience I had before college was in a two-room country school house listening to my fifth-grade teacher read us Little House on the Prairie.

I first met Holden Caulfield while looking through paperbacks displayed in a revolving rack in a magazine shop. This was before the book had become a cultural phenomenon. The cover caught my eye. It showed a boy with his hat on backwards toting a suitcase as he prepared to enter what looked like a seedy adult scene where a worldly woman was lighting a cigarette while a sinister overcoated figure hovered nearby. Probably what made me take the book down and start reading was the title and the sales pitch on the cover: "This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart – but you will never forget it."

I read the first chapter right there in the store. After that, not wanting to embarrass myself by laughing out loud, I bought it. It was rare for me to buy a book in those days. I was about Holden's age, ready to start my senior year of high school. After reading the second chapter, I ran out of the house to share it with some friends. I wanted to read the funny bits out loud to someone. This was a completely unique voice suggesting possibilities of expression that had simply not been thinkable before. Like so many others who discovered it, it made me want to be a writer.

The scene I read aloud to my friends was the one where Holden visits his ailing, aged history teacher. I think it¹s still probably the funniest scene in the book and the one most likely to exhilarate young readers who can immediately identify with this classic student-teacher situation. Even serious, assignment-friendly "A" students have probably experienced at least a variation on what Holden has to put up with when "old Spencer" insists on reading aloud his answer to the "optional essay" question that caused Holden to flunk the course; his answer begins "The Egyptians were an ancient race of Caucasians residing in one of the northern sections of Africa. The latter as we all know is the largest continent in the Eastern Hemisphere."

An earlier version of the same scene can be found in I'm Crazy, a story Salinger published in Collier's six years before the book itself appeared. It reads like a clumsy impersonation of the published Catcher and it isn't nearly as funny. One reason is that Holden's language had to be toned down, "hell" became "heck" and instead of the classic line that has "old Spencer" handling Holden's exam paper "like it was a turd or something," he handles it "as though it were something catching he had to handle for the good of science or something." It's safe to say I'd have been less likely to buy the book if I'd read that version of the first chapter.

The original paperback cover reproduced here is the one that caught my eye. I've read the book four or five times since in various hardcover editions, but it's never captivated me the way it did when I read it in high school. It was the humor and the newness of the voice that impressed me then. Reading it as an adult, I¹m more aware that what makes the character so special is that he's a teenager who sees the world with the eyes of a man who saw combat on D-Day and, according to various biographers, suffered a nervous breakdown. Holden's problems are way beyond flunking history. His younger brother has died, his older brother has "sold out" to Hollywood, his favorite girl has taken up with "the king of the phonies," and his favorite teacher, his last refuge during his Manhattan odyssey, makes a pass at him. Or so Holden thinks. "His tragedy," as William Faulkner said, is that "when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there."

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