"Sure, J.D. Salinger's novel was edgy and controversial when teachers first put it on their syllabi. But that was 50 years ago."
Why is The Catcher in the Rye still a rite of high school English? Sure, J.D. Salinger's novel was edgy and controversial when teachers first put it on their syllabi. But that was 50 years ago. Today, Salinger's novel lacks the currency or shock value it once had, and has lost some of its critical cachet. But it is still ubiquitously taught even though many newer novels of adolescence are available.To this day, The Catcher in the Rye remains one of the most referred-to books on back-cover blurbs. Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing is, "as a coming of age story … one of the best since Catcher in the Rye"; Douglas Coupland's Generation X is "a modern-day Catcher in the Rye"; David Sedaris's Barrel Fever is "a caustic mix of J. D. Salinger and John Waters." Indeed, there are many tales of adolescent angst out there, and they all, it seems, need a wink to Salinger to claim a place in this genre. But Salinger's novel no longer deserves the top spot in contemporary coming-of-age literature, even if most would still agree that it firmly occupies the X spot in the "X meets Y" publishing pitch ("It's Catcher in the Rye meets Blood Diamonds"; "It's Catcher in the Rye for gay teenagers").High school teachers got on the Catcher bandwagon in the early 1960s, in an effort to update their hoary reading lists. When it was first assigned, Catcher's purpose in the curriculum was to offer students a contemporary, cool alternative to, say, something lengthy and dense like David Copperfield. Salinger had a prescient sense of his hero's eventual cultural role: Holden starts his story by telling us he is not going to rehearse "all that David Copperfield kind of crap," because it bores him.If Salinger needed to acknowledge Dickens in 1951, today any new adolescent coming-of-age tale must go through "all that Holden Caulfield crap." In the 19th century, a bildungsroman showed the growing maturity and self-awareness of a young person. That remains more or less true, but now the equation for the modern bildungsroman is more like, as a friend puts it: "Horny plus bored minus transportation divided by the whole of one's interior life, multiplied by an inverse ratio of miles to a city or a place where there is anything at all to do."The publication of Catcher helped launch a "Salinger Industry," as George Steiner described the phenomenon in a 1959 article for The Nation. Released in the summer of 1951 by a 32-year-old writer with a modest reputation as a short-story writer, Catcher was a mid-summer Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and by fall it was fourth on The New York Times Best-Seller list. A scant eight years later, the critic Granville Hicks thought twice about including Catcher on his New York University Contemporary American Literature syllabus, because 18-year-olds had already read it.One reason for Catcher's instant-classic status was that is was-to employ that overused neologism-"relatable" to those who had the power to write about it. In 1961, The New York Times Book Review credited the popularity of Catcher with the "shock and thrill of recognition" it gave readers: "Many of my friends and this writer himself identified completely with Holden." Those few well-known critics who did not look like Holden tended to have a different perspective: Joan Didion, who thought Salinger's work slight, mocked the "relatability factor" of Salinger's novel in a 1961 essay, in which she describes a "stunningly predictable Sarah Lawrence girl" who declared Salinger "the single person in the world capable of understanding her." Like Didion, Steiner considered Catcher of minor literary merit. Its main appeal to students, he argued, is simply that the young like to read about the young, prefer short books, and ones without too many references to other books. Salinger, he says, "flatters [their] very ignorance and moral shallowness." And it helped English professors get promoted, Steiner grumbled, since writing about CatcherCatcher is now canonical. It is a part of literary history. Holden is our contemporary American David Copperfield, our 20th-century Huck Finn. He's part of our common conversation, our cultural literacy. You have to admire the guy.Still, after half a century of new, equally "relatable" coming-of-age-stories, don't some of Holden's younger siblings deserve the end-of-the-year spot in sophomore English? Since a syllabus is a zero-sum game, adding means knocking something off the list ("Scarlet Letter!" yell my undergraduates). But not to worry: Given that a higher population of Americans now attend college than they did in the 1950s, most will be forced to read the old classics a few years later.
A revised syllabus:
Freaks and Geeks (1999)NBC's series, produced by Judd Apatow, deftly portrayed the tenderness and anxiety of high school.
Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson (1999)Anderson's Speak tells the story of Melinda, a high school freshman and teenage outcast whose struggles with adolescence cause her to fall mute.
Drown, Junot Díaz (1996)This book of short stories (by this year's Pulitzer Prize winner) is told from the perspective of Dominican adolescents struggling with family, sexuality, and identity. The lyrical, inventive prose makes their stories all the more memorable.
Project X, Jim Shepard (2004)Shepard's bold novel tells the story of two eighth-graders in a Columbine-style school massacre. Shepard tackles one of the scariest aspects of 21st-century adolescence.
American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang (2007)This graphic novel tells that age-old story of trying to accept who you are. Taking up Asian-American themes, Yang breaks new bildungsroman ground.
Old School, Tobias Wolff (2003)Set in a prep school in the early 1960s, a scholarship boy with literary ambitions tries to find his voice. Wolff reworks Salinger's terrain without sentimentality.
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)The first novel by the author of Middlesex plays with the horror genre, and tells us that not all is at it appears in suburbia. Unflinching and masterfully written, Suicides is not easy, but that's the point.
Anywhere But Here, Mona Simpson (1986)A mother-daughter story about life on the road and a child's desire to be rooted. Simpson reminds us that sometimes a teenager's rebellion against a parent is warranted.