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.(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?)
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.