I was still fourteen, a freshman at Kimball High, when my English teacher Mr. Botens had our parents sign permission slips so we could read The Catcher in the Rye.
At this time my favorite books were still The Count of Monte Cristo and The Great White South about Robert Falcon Scott. I had read Jane Eyre, and Les Miserables, and lots of horse stories and dog stories and Edgar Allan Poe.
I had not read contemporary or Modern fiction.
As I read those first paragraphs and heard Holden's voice I was hooked. I did not identify with Holden, but I felt like I knew him. Mr. Botens led us through an understanding of the book. He did not explain some things I was still ignorant about.
Like 'tossed their cookies'. Holden says the taxi cab smelled like someone had 'tossed their cookies.' Only because his next sentence is about vomit was I able to get it. And D.B. prostituting in Hollywood? I did not know about the lure of big, easy money that drew established writers to become screenwriters. How they sold their talent, watched their darlings get sliced and diced into something new, and then bear the shame of having their name associated with the screenplay--or get no credit at all.
At fourteen I got the comedic moments. I introduced myself as Rudolph Schmidt then had to explain the reference. I loved the concept of 'secret slob', someone who is always well groomed but whose razor is never cleaned.
I did not understand how the Caulfield family had been impacted by the horrid death of Allie, I did not know what dying from leukemia meant. The workaholic father, the mother up all night smoking cigarettes, Holden spiraling into depression while idealizing about saving all the innocent and bright children from toppling over the cliff--it was so foreign.
The summer after ninth grade I read everything published by J. D. Salinger. I had the book nearly memorized.
This month our library book club read The Cather in the Rye. Many had read the book in high school, forgotten about it, and on rereading saw the sadness and self-destructive acts and teenage angst.
But the book is more than about teenage angst.
I was deeply moved this reading. My husband talked about PTSD. We talked about parents who couldn't cope so sent kids away to school, and teachers who could only preach conformity and getting one's act together, and the loneliness of falling into a dark place, desperate to connect, to be saved.
I asked people to think about who Holden does like as a way of seeing his innate decency and goodness: the nuns, the classmate who was bullied and killed himself. Even the mother on the train to whom he wove a story about her popular son--he liked her, and thinking she probably knew what her son was like Holden wanted to give her the gift of a fantasy son.
I reminded my fellow readers about the post-war world of conformity, the worship of status and wealth that Holden found phony, and which his peers seemed to accept as normal.
In his article Holden Caulfield at Fifty, Louis Menand wrote that this is a novel spawned of the 1940s, a novel about loss and a world gone wrong. I don't think Salinger could have written the same novel had he never served during World War II.
Each generation has its moment of horror that changes everything. The assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The Viet Nam War. The Challenger explosion. 9-11. Desert Storm. Columbine. Perhaps that is why Holden endures: he gives voice to what young people feel about the world they are inheriting and expected to live in, the messed up values that adults expect them to accept.
The times change. But how our kids feel about what we have done, or not done, remains unaltered. We keep messing up and we expect the next generation to like it--or fix it.