There really isn't a sound bite that we can offer you to introduce J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, which was published forty-nine years ago this week, because it's never been turned into an audio book, or a movie, or a television series. In fact, it has kept either its plain red or plain white covers for nearly five decades, covers so devoid of information about its famously reclusive author and the book's contents and history, as to make it more like a note found in a bottle from a strange and distant country. And yet this tale of a teenager's crack-up, is one of our country's most celebrated and challenged books, revered by honor students and, alas, assasins, denounced by parents and read and reread regularly and quietly by legions of baby boomers. If you had to pick a single book that has continued to influence teenagers -- to open their eyes, to confirm what they think and feel, to capture the idealistic ferment and existential angst of coming of age -- it would be this one. Never mind that the author didn't intend it as a book for young people. In fact, Salinger, the World War II army veteran who had landed in France on D-Day, was a New Yorker writer whose subject just happened to be young people. And the book was taken by its first wave of critics as a work of literature, to be compared not with John R. Tunis' boys sports stories, but instead with the works of Albert Camus, Raymond Chandler, Jack Kerouac, and, of course, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.
What drew and will always draw people, young and older, to this book is its perfect portrait of a teenager's, Holden Caulfield's, struggle to find an authentic identity -- a sense of self that isn't phony (like the adults around him), that isn't compromised (like his peers at school), that isn't confused (like he secretly feels himself to be). It's one of, if not THE basic crisis of adolescence -- that search for what rings true and burns bright, despite what everyone else says you should be and do. Late in the book, Holden tells his little sister, Phoebe, about his vision of protecting the thousands of children who are playing in a field of rye from going over "some crazy cliff" nearby. He's the only big person around, and he'd spend his whole days catching them before they fall. "I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be." He is trying to catch his sister, who really does not need his help, but, of course, he is really trying to catch himself before he goes over the edge. That is, of course, where the best books often take us -- poignantly, honestly, and yes, sometimes profanely -- to the edge where we wrestle to learn how to catch ourselves.
Copyright 2003 © John Cech
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