Meis on Rye


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I’m for the kids. It’s crazy not to be. Are you, dear reader, mighty Atlas, going to hold the world in place and keep it from changing into something new? One lesson of all hitherto existing human history is that the kids have the advantage in the long run. This is a function of time and finitude. The only real wisdom comes in realizing that the kids of today will get their comeuppance with the swift passing of a decade or so. They, too, will wake up one day to find themselves representatives of what was, instead of what shall be. The kids keep on coming.

We learned recently (from a New York Times article by Jennifer Schuessler) that Holden Caulfield, the anti-hero of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, has lost his appeal among the teenage crowd. This came without fair warning. No pimply representative of the Millennials stepped forward to cushion the blow. Instead, we are informed by Barbara Feinberg — “who has observed numerous class discussions of ‘Catcher'” — that a 15-year-old boy from Long Island has said, “Oh, we all hated Holden in my class. We just wanted to tell him, ‘Shut up and take your Prozac.’”

It is easy to respond defensively and with contempt. People don’t like to have their heroes snubbed, especially when the snubbing comes from some little punk from Long Island whose fingers are surely rubbed raw from constant tweeting, texting, gaming, and masturbation. We (shall we define ‘we’ as that part of the population over 30?) find subtle ways to undercut the legions of cheeky hormone machines. Trying to explain the sudden disdain for Mr. Caulfield, a cultural critic by the name of Mr. Dickstein says,

The skepticism, the belief in the purity of the soul against the tawdry, trashy culture plays very well in the counterculture and post-counterculture generation. [Today], I wouldn’t say we have a more gullible youth culture, but it may be more of a joining or togetherness culture.

Indeed, Mr. Dickstein would never say that we have a more gullible youth culture now than in his time, except that he just did. Such are the sneaky tactics of the older generations in the face of youthful boldness.

I, for one, did identify with Holden Caulfield. My father gave me The Catcher in the Rye in my early teenage years with a wink and a nudge and that was all I needed. The first sentence made me happy:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

I did want to know the truth, and I was pretty sure that this kid Holden had a handle on it. Not just because of what he was saying, but how he said it. That rambling first sentence takes its time. It’s a wind-up. The phrase “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” kicks in at just the right moment. There is real anger there, with the perfect dose of passive- aggressive bratiness. Plus, it doubles as a literary manifesto. This book ain’t gonna be the high language of the 19th-century novel or literary modernism either. Holden will speak like Holden and that is that.

But I outpace myself. The fact is I’m willing to throw Holden under the bus. I refuse to accept the idea that Holden Caulfield represents the only authentic model of youthful revolt. I’m reminded, in this, of something that Alfred Kazin wrote about Salinger in the early ’70s.

Salinger has a genius for capturing the emotional giveaway. Love is isolating. The fact that his love necessitates so much disdain shows how much social comedy springs from coldness toward the world. … The whole scheme of values in Salinger’s fiction is to give the highest marks to the individual made exceptional by a sensitivity to society that is fear of it.

In other words, “alienation.” It’s a deep question when you come to think of it. Is alienation an essential, structural part of being a teenager? And if so, is that moment of disjunction, the realization that all is not as it seems, the central experience by which, forever after, we will measure the distance between real and fake, truth and lies? The central adjective of The Catcher in the Rye is “phony.” The central question in J.D. Salinger’s all-encompassing metaphysics is whether something or someone is phony or not. The key emotion is distance and distrust.

I’ll go ahead and speculate that alienation is, in fact, a reasonably universal feeling. It also tends to reach a heightened state in the transition from being a child to being an adult. A sampling of literature across time and culture will confirm the general point. But there are degrees. The generations that make up the 20th century made a cult icon of the alienated individual. From the High Modernists to the Baby Boomers to the Slackers it was Holden Caulfield ad infinitum. Authenticity was marked by a “coldness toward the world.” Truth was possible only in an attitude toward society that “is fear of it.”

The new generation, the one that brushes Holden aside, is not as afraid of society as we have been. This has its advantages and disadvantages. But to dismiss it as mere complacency or the new face of stupidity would be a mistake. In a funny way, it puts Robert Burns’ poem “Coming Through the Rye” right again. Holden quotes Burns as “if a body catch a body comin’ through the rye.”

Thousands of little kids and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean, if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.

But the original lines have nothing to do with “catching.” There is no catcher in the rye. In the Robert Burns poem it is “meeting” instead of “catching.” If a body meet a body comin’ through the rye. And that meeting leads directly to kissin’. That Salinger turned “meeting” into “catching,” turned basic human interaction into paranoia and fear, is no fault of J.D. Salinger. Holden Caulfield spoke to three generations because alienation was real. It still is real. But not in the same way. There’s a twist to the story that we are still trying fully to grasp. The kids are working on new metaphors. They have their own archetypes to construct. If that means saying goodbye to Holden Caulfield then so be it. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he makes his eventual return, resurrected by the kids of the kids somewhere down the line when somebody has had a little too much of the phonies. • 30 June 2009