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From the May/June 2004 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Holden at Sixteen

by bruce brooks

t was 1964 and I was fourteen when I first read The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. After considering the last bit of what Holden Caulfield had to say to me — “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody” — I decided this was the second-best book I’d ever found, after Robert Ruark’s Something of Value. And found is the right word: I had picked Holden’s tale from the rather cheesy paperback rack at Packett’s Pharmacy during my endless browses there, choosing it over Leonard Wibberley’s The Mouse That Roared (not about mice) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (not about animals or farming), because Catcher seemed much stranger. Strange was good.

I felt pretty serious about bestowing my No. 2 all-time honor on Salinger — the man ought to feel honored. Nobody I knew took books as seriously as I did, except my dad, but he read only Harold Robbins and Erle Stanley Gardner and James Michener. Alas for Pops: I felt The Catcher in the Rye was simply too much book for him. He was better off tucking up with Perry Mason in that attorney’s predictable murder courtroom, or with Mr. Michener in Hawaii, than he would be trying to hang with old Holden in his goddam prep school, or his dive New York City hotel, or his little sister’s room — good old Phoebe — after midnight.

So I did not recommend Catcher to my dad, though I owed him one for his urging me to read The Carpetbaggers. It would not have been fair. One could not expect adults to handle the kind of rough stuff Holden was laying down.

Ah, well. Little did I know what I would soon find out — that I was measurably something called a Young Reader, and that The Catcher in the Rye was a special-reserve official Adult Novel, technically more appropriate for my father than for little me. I had no right to possess this book, never mind how naturally me and old Holden hit it off; I had no authority to parse its distribution among grownups like my dad, no matter how baffled I knew they would be by its life. Not my call: The Catcher in the Rye was fully a Brilliantly Offbeat Work of Serious Literature, and one which already belonged to Them. The adults would prove their provenance with elite awards, doctoral dissertations, and critical-intellectual studies embodied in entire books! Holden Caulfield was the precious property of the grandest high-literary thinkers.

And I thought he was just a kid like me, running through a cool and shuddering story. But I was wrong, or at least only partially perceptive. Holden stood adamantine as some kind of icon, voice, symbol, avatar, age-displaced induction of pan-generational mimesis, etc. Holden, and Salinger, were highly Major. Whereas I and my teen buddies, along with our descendants for the next fifty years, were measurably Minor.

In 1998, my son Alex, then age fourteen, wrote me a letter that began:

Dear Bruce,

Hey, Happy Birthday, 48, hard to believe. Hope you had a great day. Listen, I have to tell you about a book I just read. You need to check it out, I know you will get it all. It’s called “Catcher in the Rye,” the author is JD Salinger. You know how much I hate the idea that there is something general that adults try to call “teen experience” (like there’s “adult experience” right?). Well, as much as I hate the idea and those words, I have to say Salinger got teen experience just right, at least for ONE teen, a kid named Holden. Read this book, and we can talk about it!

Alex’s letter was still fresh in my mind when I opened a New Yorker in 2001 and found a long article titled “Holden at Fifty,” by one of our leading intellects of high culture, Louis Menand.

Menand said essentially this: The Catcher in the Rye is a great book, but really it has nothing to do with young people. Holden Caulfield is nothing like a young person. He is too astute, too precise with language, and too sensitive to be so young; Salinger was playing around, trying to pass this wonderful character off as a kid. Furthermore, Catcher itself is not really a book that should be read by young people — they are insufficiently astute, precise with language, and sensitive to appreciate the book. In fact, young readers don’t even truly like the novel: they read it only because adults say they should, and they pretend to enjoy it for the same reason. According to Menand, no young reader ever discovered The Catcher in the Rye on his or her own; a sophisticated but misguided adult must have been involved.

(There are many reasons why I wish Mike Printz were still alive. I love to imagine what Mike would have to say to old Lou here.)

But what did I expect from a piece called “Holden at Fifty”? Holden was not fifty in 2001. Holden will never be fifty. Holden was sixteen in 1951, and he is sixteen today. That will not change, whether the novel is fifty, seventy-five, or a hundred. It may take the sixteen-year-olds of those times to tell, though.

It is a truism among people in the young adult field (a bit self-congratulatory, a bit defensive, perhaps) that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Catcher in the Rye would likely be published today as YAs. Or, at least, they could be, successfully — and not just because they are narrated by young adults. In the past twenty years we have had quite a few novels about or narrated by teenagers that would have done poorly as YA books among critics, librarians, and genuine young adult readers. Examples: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, Edisto by Padgett Powell, Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks. These novels, published for adults to read, were celebrated for the daring, wildcard, high-literary device of using kids as main characters. A teenage narrator! What a concept!

Why do the books by Mark Twain, Harper Lee, and J. D. Salinger make the grade as YA novels while these others do not? Simple: Huck, Scout, and Holden act their ages. These three kids look like young adults, walk like young adults, and quack like young adults. Not because they are exactly like existing kids, nor because they may be deemed “accurate” by the critics who use that chilly word as a virtue and count accuracy as “truth.” Rather, these three narrators tell us unique stories, in unique voices, which allow us to believe that their lives fit. (What better can be said of a good character, of any age? Say, Humbert Humbert or Tristram Shandy?)

The putative teenagers in the books by Hoban, Powell, and Banks are exotics, not kids; in their stories, their age makes them thrillingly strange to adult readers used to reading about adults, and this cool strangeness removes the need for the characters to fit.

You can’t trick most eighth graders in this way. Teenagers are not especially exotic to them; they want characters who seem to be alive.

My first novel, The Moves Make the Man (HarperCollins), is narrated by a fourteen-year-old kid writing the story of things that happened during the previous year of his life, when he was thirteen. The narrative is in the past tense, as it should be under this condition; the kid states in the first chapter that he is starting to write just after the events themselves have ended. Nothing original or difficult about this setup.

The novel was not written as a YA novel; I did not even know such things existed. However, it was published as a YA novel.

Shortly after the book came out, I was having an affable discussion with a YA critic. He pointed out something he believed was a pretty bad lapse of technique: my narrator’s voice changed in the course of his tale, so that by the end of the book he sounded different from the way he was in the beginning. Furthermore, the narrator’s emotions changed as well as his syntax, to the point that the feelings coming from his language did not seem to match the feelings he described in himself at the time of the action. What, the critic asked, did I have to say to that?

I agreed. My kid’s voice indeed changed as his narrative drew toward the end. How could it not? At page 100, he was quite advanced from the rather rough, inexperienced writer he’d been at page five. As for his feelings, and the apparent discrepancy between what he said he felt at the time of the action, and the feelings his narrative voice seemed to show now, well, again, of course! By the time we reach page 200, the kid has been through the telling of the story, not just the raw living of it. Going over the events once more, and proceeding in time as he wrote, while the initial experience of the events receded, could not fail to instill a new perspective, a comprehension, possibly a change of heart. (The critic refused to believe that I had done this on purpose.)

Now let’s consider Salinger and Holden. Holden lets us know early on that he is writing this story not long after the events happened, from some sort of asylum; he even tells us the exercise is supposed to be therapeutic for him. He is seventeen now; he was sixteen when these things went down.

But if the therapy of narrative works, we can’t see it, or feel it. Holden’s voice is the same at the end of his retelling as it is at the start. He seems to have learned very little; his feelings at the time of the events he relates appear to be his feelings now. Either Holden doesn’t reflect very deeply, or he doesn’t see any reason to augment his thinking.

But here’s an intriguing question: is this lack of growth or understanding in Holden Caulfield a feature that defines The Catcher in the Rye as a novel for adults? Conversely, is the progress made by most young narrators — end-of-book signs of growth, or hope, or some kind of gain for the effort of telling a story (and reading it) — a feature that defines these books as fit for young readers? In other words, do grownups need it sad, while kids need it upturned? Or, at least, is that how YA professionals believe they should have it?

Ultimately, the fact that The Catcher in the Rye is not designated an official Young Adult Book hasn’t limited its availability to young readers, much less its appeal to them. (The novel is frequently challenged or banned for kids, but so are many YA books.) Holden Caulfield’s tale is probably the book most widely read by teenagers, generation after generation, and perhaps most widely enjoyed. The Catcher in the Rye is windy and stony and hot and cool, brilliantly subtle and disarmingly overt, straightforward, manipulative, sentimental, pragmatic, crazy, controlled, always precise. But perhaps most important, to adult readers in ignorance, and to young readers in wisdom, The Catcher in the Rye is ineffably young.

Bruce Brooks is the author of over thirty books, including What Hearts, Midnight Hour Encores, and his most recent novel, Dolores.

From the May/June 2004 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

More Horn Book views on young adult literature:
Jonathan Hunt and Tim Wynne-Jones on crossover books

  Notes from the Horn Book

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