Monday, February 1, 2010

Guest blogger Richard Bowes: Thoughts on The Catcher in the Rye

Critically-acclaimed writer Richard (Rick) Bowes has published five novels, the most recent of which is From the Files of the Time Rangers (Golden Gryphon). His most recent short fiction collection is Streetcar Dreams and Other Midnight Fancies (PS Publications). He has won the World Fantasy, Lambda, International Horror Guild and Million Writers Awards. Recent stories are in F&SF, Subterranean Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Sybil's Garage and The Coyote Road, Beastly Bride, Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy and So Fey anthologies. Rick and I recently got into an online discussion about the merits of the late J.D. Salinger's most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye; I asked him to share his thoughts with readers of The Swivet.
No Writer Can Survive Being Assigned in High School
by Richard Bowes
Salinger's death a few days ago brought some mourning and some jeers. The death in a way was overshadowed by his famous book. Lots of people - especially kids who have been forced to read it in school - don't like Catcher in the Rye; they consider Holden Caulfield a whining loser.

But back when Catcher not only wasn't taught and in many communities was not readily allowed into the hands of the young, it had all the magic of the subversive.

Age 15 in 1959, I'd first heard of the book from older kids, but when I went to the Codman Square branch of the Boston Public Library, I found you had to be 18 or older to read Catcher. The excellent children's librarian let me check it out for a week.

I read it two or three times before bringing it back. I'd already read Huckleberry Finn and Evelyn Waugh's comic novel Decline and Fall about a REALLY bad English Public School and loved them. But the narrator of Catcher was almost contemporary and spoke pretty much the way I did. He was Prep School and Manhattan; I was middle/working class Boston. Even then I doubted that we would have liked each other if we'd met. But we were disturbed and pissed off in a lot of the same ways.

Does this make Catcher in the Rye great literature? No. But when it came out it was unique, a novel read mainly by young people, some of them very young at a time when YA as a category didn't exist. There were only adult novels and a substratum of novels for children and very young teens.

By the time Salinger finally produced Franny and Zooey and got on the cover of Time Magazine, two other novels that also appealed to the young - Lord of the Flies (1954) and A Separate Peace (1959) - had started to get mentioned along with Catcher.

Like The Catcher in the Rye, these novels weren't written for adolescents; they were discovered by them.

By 1961, in fact, On the Road (written in 1951 - the same year that Catcher was published - but not published until 1957) had captured the attention of alienated young men. In 1967, S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders was published and the YA category rich in compelling first person narrative was underway.

On a guess, I'd say that by 1976 - twenty-five years after its first publication - The Catcher in the Rye had stopped speaking to kids. It has a cultural significance. Anyone wanting to understand the USA in the 1950's will have to read it. Anyone interested in YA as a phenomenon needs to know this book.

But I think it's pretty much axiomatic that anything that can be assigned in school has already lost its edge.
(The above is a photo of Richard Bowes at the very age he first read The Catcher in the Rye. He doesn't look like a trouble-maker, does he?)


Kelly said...

I'm curious why you think anything assigned in high school has lost it's edge. I think Catcher was relevant far beyond 1975, and while it may not appeal to today's HS kids as much as it did in the past, I don't think that means it is outdated, just that it appeals to a different age group.

And I know, at least in my HS classes, certain classics like 1984 were still well loved. I can also think of at least a dozen books only published in the past 20 or so years being taught in HS--things like Atwood and O'Brien.

steeleweed said...

Maybe something becomes obsolete because it wasn't assigned in HS.
Post HS, I found a lot of great literature that should have been assigned. There's something to be said for teachers leading instead of trying to follow the fad-of-the-day and be YA-PC.

jmartinlibrary said...

Erg. Don't throw rocks, but tt's not one of my favorite books. I loved the voice, and the character felt real, but I felt he just wandered around like a more sympathetic, mild mannered version of Ellis' Patrick Bateman.

But...I recognize Salinger challenged the norms of the time by employing a revolutionary narrative voice.

I think his short stories are much better than Catcher in the Rye.

And thanks for mentioning Knowles' A Separate Peace. Loved it in HS.

jj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jj said...


"Around 250,000 copies are sold each year, with total sales of more than sixty-five million."

Yup, that "whiney loser" Holden Caulfield has certainly lost his appeal over the decades. Umm. LOL.

I'd like to see annual sales over past 10 years anyway -- trends always interest me.

clindsay said...

JJ -

With all due respect, the number of copies sold of any book doesn't necessarily equate to the number of people who read and loved the book.

The book sells like crazy for precisely one reason and one reason only: it is required reading in most American schools.

When I was in school, I had to read it four years in a row, for four different high school English classes. By the end of the fourth reread, I could quote parts of the book. But that didn't stop me from hating it each and every time I read it. I went to high school in the late 70s/early 80s. By that point, Holden Caulfield no longer had anything to say to me as a teenager.

Some of the other books that Rick mentioned in his book spoke to me in a much deeper way, particularly S.E. Hinton's THE OUTSIDERS. I recently reread THE OUTSIDERS and it held up just as well as the first time I read it when I was eleven years old.

I think the difference was that in THE OUTSIDERS, Pony Boy and his friends had genuine real-world problems, problems that poor kids (like me at the time) can still relate to. But Holden was a whiner who pretty much had the world handed to him. I never understood why he was so disaffected; I only understood that he was the kind of teenager that my mother and father would have called a spoiled brat. And thus not someone whose company I would enjoy.



jj said...


I never went to high school at all, so I have no point of reference for any of that. My apologies if I came on like a know-it-all... I'm anything but.

I was simply amazed at those sales numbers. I'd be curious, as I suspect you would be too, as to how many high schools STILL make it required reading. I have 2 nephews and a niece in h.s. and will ask if they've been required to read it.

sharon moore

rick bowes said...

Obviously I was an adult by the time I read THE OUTSIDERS. I was impressed by its take on class differences - not a subject much considered in Post WW2 US fiction whether adult of YA. But the boys did seem kind of like girls. Holden was definitely a guy.

rick bowes said...

Catcher may be one of those books that will always find audiences -maybe expected ones. In the 1980/90's at NYU there were a lot Iranian Jewish kids who'd had to flee their homeland. I remember a group of undergrads -premeds - who had to read the book in U.S. high schools. And they loved it. About that same time in Moscow and Leningrad (as it was then)just after the collapse of the Communist regime, Tennessee Williams, whose plays were quite passe in this country became hugely popular. His themes - sexu al repression, alcoholism, fantasy bred from unhappiness were brand new in Russia.

pauljessup said...

I was never assigned it school- but a friend of mine loved it and insisted I read it (he also gave me Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and something else, I can't remember). I, too, didn't really like it much.

It wasn't that the main character was whining...I just couldn't connect with him, on any level. I also read (on my own, not assigned in school) Lord of the Flies and loved that one, as well as the Outsiders (still my most favorite book ever- I'm a huge SE Hinton fan), and I read these before Catcher in the Rye...maybe if I read Catcher first it would hold more power? I don't know.

I just couldn't connect with him. I did enjoy Frannie and Zooey though, quite a lot more than Catcher.

pauljessup said...

"I think the difference was that in THE OUTSIDERS, Pony Boy and his friends had genuine real-world problems, problems that poor kids (like me at the time) can still relate to"

OMG- YES to that. I was twelve when I read the Outsiders, and even though it was a difference of 30 years or so, it spoke volumes to me.

Stay Golden, Pony Boy, yeah. Those were my friends. Those were people I knew. People who grew up without much, but read like crazy and were full of mad ideas.

I also read On the Road a little after that (which was THE BOOK that influenced how I write...I mean, that book practically taught me everything I know about writing, and prose, and all that stuff), and then a bunch of other SE Hinton books that also spoke to me and my friends. Like That was then, This is now....

Elizabeth Bradley said...

I read Catcher in high school and loved it. When my son had to read it a few years ago I gave him my copy. He said it was "alright", so I picked it up and started reading it to see what this old lady thought of Holden. I didn't finish. Not that I don't love Salinger, I really enjoy his short stories. I just couldn't be bothered to finish.

Anonymous said...

Ok, one thing that hasn't changed if you ask my grandmother, my mother, or me...mother of a 20 year old... some teenagers are just miserable. No apparent reasons for their despair, they are just moody freaks. Reading stories told from the point of view of similarly tortured mutants helps them feel like they are not alone and that someone understands.

I gave "the Catcher in the Rye" to my son when he was in the throes of his teen woes and I also gave him "the Outsiders". He loved both books and read them many times.

I also loved them as a teen and I love them now as a mother of a whiny pouter. They are both great books IMO and I believe they are timeless.

My son may have children someday, oh my stars! and if he does they will receive those great books from Grandma for Christmas... if we still have Christmas!!! They will also get "One For Sorrow" by Chris Barzak!

BJ Omalley

rick bowes said...


One of the fascinating things in Chris Barzak's 'One for Sorrow' is that Adam, the narrator, a working class teen in serious trouble, has read Catcher and contrasts himself with Holden Caulfield. The book is a common denominator - the work of fiction most people are most likely to have read.

Suzette Saxton said...

Look at the gleam in young Richard's eye... I think there's quite a spark of mischief.

Interesting article. Catcher in the Rye was a favorite for me in HS in 1990... but I was the only one who liked it. I think you're right about it losing its significance to HS kids. (Well, most of them, anyway.)

Jason said...
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Andylucho said...

the book is exquisite and very good to read

christine tripp said...

"Catcher in the Rye" was feed to us in HS "back in the day" as was "Fahrenheit 451".
To be honest, I'm not sure how most of us survived, let alone didn't fling ourselves off a cliff, previous to having to read "Lord of the Flies"
The teenage years are darn hard, and the adults (school board) don't make it any easier.

Anonymous said...

For some reason, schools like to assign dull or depressing books, even when nondepressing books of the same period are still around. And they really go for books written for adults, which kids are often not equipped to understand. _Silas Marner_, for instance.

I missed out on _Catcher in the Rye_ in school (and read one chapter and tossed it, on my own--as a female reader from the wilds of South Texas, I found it incredibly boring and annoying), but was dragged through _Lord of the Flies_ in college. Blech. (My mind-blowing reading of that period was Lawrence Durrell's _The Alexandria

Tim Shirk said...

Interesting theory but I contest that it is axiomatic that books assigned in school lose their edge. My friends and I were all profoundly impacted by Holden's narrative and it was required reading for us.

I have never forgotten that connection and the main principle in the book lingers with me much like the main element from stories like Lord of the Flies and The Outsiders.