R.I.P. Holden

When Jerome David Salinger died last week, Arts and Letters Daily posted over fifty obits and recognitions on its web page, much more than for William Safire or Howard Zinn (who??). To put the event in perspective, Salinger wrote a bunch of short stories and two novels. His writing career was short–maybe fifteen years? His influence on literature is probably good for another fifty, or at least until all the baby boomers die out. He is so identified with his best-known work that farewells to Salinger often read like farewells to Holden Caufield.

The genius of Holden is that he gave adolescence a voice. It’s not a particularly compelling voice: cranky, petulant, self-righteous, wistful, sharp, idealistic. But before his appearance n the literary scene, the years between 12 and 19 were passed over as quickly as possible: a swift ride on the current, like Huck Finn, or a humorous concept personified by Mickey Rooney.

Yet his character today seems to have the most resonance not for teens but for those just past teenagerhood: the twenty- or thirty-somethings who have suddenly grown up and find themselves part of the establishment. From that near perspective, Holden is the kid they wish they had been: the noble soul in sneakers, echoed in subsequent fiction. The hero of one of this years’ Pintz Honor books (the Michael J. Printz award is given annually by the American Library Association for excellence in Young-adult literature) is a Holden knock-off: perceptive, funny, virginal and foul-mouthed, also victimized by adult phoniness.

Salinger probably didn’t intend his hero to become the icon of American youth. Holden has two brothers, one a worldly-wise screenwriter who stands as a bridge to adulthood, the other a sweet, other-worldly sort who’s dead. Between the two, Holden hesitates, longing for Allie’s serenity and innocence but moving inexorably toward D. B. The conflict is unresolved, with the sense that going on is not likely to solve anything for him: he’s met death, as all of us must, and the only options are to join Allie there or join the phonies who carry on their trivial pursuits as though the same fate does not crouch for them.

This is a human dilemma, not just a teenage one, but generations since have insisted on loading the poor kid up with the baggage of angst. Which, in my opinion, is more than he can bear. As the patron saint of adolescence, Holden is insufferable, both the litigator and the victim of his culture, looking down on less-evolved souls from the transplanted consciousness of his author. The postwar generation was moving on, starting families, taking refuge in sentimentality because they’d been through hell. They raised the first generation of teenagers, who embraced Holden Caufield as their model of transcendence. On his narrow shoulders they (okay, we) yelled that we wouldn’t trust anybody over thirty– until we got to be thirty, then we raised the age of reliability by foisting Catcher In the Rye on our children and grandchildren.

Holden’s just a kid, of a particular place and time. Let’s let him be a kid, and the rest of us grow up.

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