The Art of Being a Loser

I know I’m a bit late in posting this, but author J.D. Salinger passed away on January 27, 2010 which has led to the celebrity he avoided in life consuming his death.

A slew of articles were done on one of the most recognized American authors in history, but one in particular left me scratching my head. Newsweek decided to let someone who was not a fan of Salinger write an article about his death entitled J.D. Salinger Outlived His Legend. I usually like contrasting viewpoints on a person, and using only fans to comment on an author isn’t as circumspect. It’s like only letting Nazis comment on Hitler’s death. I’m not a fan of Hitler nor Salinger (to a far far lesser extent than the former) so I was curious to see what Malcolm Jones had to say.

The article was wholly obnoxious based on this opening alone, “Holden Caulfield was certainly no more interesting than I was, and back then (oh, heck, even now), I wanted the people in the books I read to be a lot more interesting than me. But there was almost nothing in that book for me to connect with. I didn’t have a sister. I didn’t go to prep school. I had no idea what taking the train into New York meant. And Holden himself seemed like sort of a drip.” J.D. Salinger was dismissed because Holden had a sister and the author didn’t? Really? This is coming from a journalist on a national publication?

I should point out that I grew up in New York City at the turn of the millennium and took the train to public school every morning (I read The Catcher in the Rye on the ride over), came from an immigrant family, don’t have a sister, oh and for good measure, I’m female. Based on that, I should hate the book because Holden isn’t me. This also eliminates from my reading list about 99.99% of the English literary canon from my good graces – how did I manage a degree in that subject that so obviously wasn’t about me? God forbid Jones does a commentary on Star Wars – it’s pointless and boring because unlike Luke, he doesn’t have a sister, let alone lived on Tatooine.

Any literary critic worth their ink (or I guess these days, typeface) knows that while we might not like a certain book, that does not mean their contribution to the literary canon ought to be discredited (unless you’re teaching a course in English lit and choose not to put certain books on your syllabus). Jones writes from the perspective of his 13 year old self back in the mid-60s, not the journalist in his late 50s. Those reasons for dismissal aren’t valid at that age either.

I was 14 years old when I had to read The Catcher in the Rye for English class, and the vast majority of us couldn’t stand the book. To this day, I really don’t know any teenager that does. I’ll admit that we pecked out Holden for being the rich New York elite that we felt looked down on us, but that was hardly the reason I actually disliked him. As one kid put it, “Holden Caulfield is messed up in the head.” While the teacher kept badgering us that we should feel kinship with an angst-ridden teen from New York, Holden was not the kid we wanted to be. He was pathetic, a failure and constantly pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Our generation gap was vast and all we could think was ‘You’re rich, suck it up.  I know plenty of people with worse lives that were broke…  I could have pulled that off with my hands tied behind my back…  I think you’re screwed up because you just want to be…’

Looking back on it, it was one of those teen novels not really meant for teens, but nostalgic pieces written several years after the author’s youth. Salinger wrote Holden Caulfield’s story in the 1940s, which put him in his 30s at the time. He wrote of a nostalgia for innocence that many teens don’t experience nor understand until their 20s (or at least that was my case). I think that high school students shouldn’t read The Catcher in the Rye until their junior or senior year in order to get the full effect, because at 13 and 14, they’ve only started acclimating themselves to being “teenagers,” so how can they feel the loss of their youth when they haven’t experienced it? That’s what Salinger wrote about so compellingly. Sure the story wasn’t to my tastes, and there are many who disavow it’s literary merit, but it is the grandfather of all teen angst stories.

Without The Catcher in the Rye, we wouldn’t have had The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dawson’s Creek, SuperBad (or pretty much Judd Apatow’s entire career) or many of the other teen films and TV shows and books about that teenager whose family doesn’t get him and he struggles to find his way in the world. Anyone worth their literary pedigree could tell you that sure Holden Caulfield was lame and a loser, but he paved the way for loser, angst-ridden teens everywhere to get their stories told.

Holden Caulfield made being a loser into an art form.

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