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Thirty-six middle-aged people lean in simultaneously, a collection of ears trained intently on the speaker. He clears his throat before addressing the smattering of adults comprised mostly of teachers, a handful of parents, and an empty-nester townie or two. “The verdict is in,” he announces. “The novel Catcher in the Rye, despite having been on the required reading list for ten years, is… banned, henceforth, by the Parent-Teacher Association of Columbus, Ohio.”
Scenes like this one have been playing out continuously since J. D. Salinger published his most famous novel in 1951 (TIME Staff 1). Columbus was not the first district to ban the book, and it was far from the last. According to TIME Magazine, the committee had labeled the book “anti-white,” while another school district in Tulsa, Oklahoma had the teacher who assigned the novel to a classroom of juniors fired (TIME Staff 1). Though the teacher won his appeal for wrongful termination, the book remained off-limits.
The reasons this novel is so widely-feared by parents and instructors lies in its content. Mature themes of death, loss, and budding sexuality permeate the novel’s aging pages, and many fear that teens who are exposed to this content will be likely to mimic it. But what these well-intentioned committees are missing is how these themes are not only suitable for older high school students, but critical to their developments as young adults. The Catcher in the Rye is a quintessential piece of American literature that provides an entry point to discussions about issues like sexuality, loss, and grief in a safe environment, making it an indispensable tool in every English department’s arsenal.
There is an age-old struggle between parents and their teens that deals with letting go. It is often hard for caregivers to allow their children to leave their careful sights, often out of fear that the cruel reality of the outside world can corrupt or harm their cherubic offspring. This phenomenon can be seen in parents when dealing with sex- there is such a fear of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases as well as the social notion that sex is only acceptable within the bonds of marriage that the idea of any teen having sex is simply preposterous. Naturally, the fact that Salinger’s protagonist Holden references sex on many occasions is difficult for some parents to get on board with. For example, in chapter thirteen, Holden meets and goes to a hotel room with a prostitute, only to back out before anything happens. In chapter eleven, he gets close to “necking” with a girl named Jane (Salinger 78, 94-98). Both times, he ends up abstaining from the act itself, out of nervousness and, perhaps, out of a subconscious reluctance to let go of one of the last barriers between himself and adulthood. While the idea of high schoolers reading about close-encounters with sex might seem problematic, the truth is the scenes serve mostly to strengthen the novel’s importance by providing the instructor with a segue in which he or she can address issues of sexuality and growing up with the young adult audience. This allows for meaningful conversations about the emotional importance of sex in life- which is something many teens learn about the hard way. When sex education only covers the physiology of the biological function, it might be left to the literature to bring up how big of a deal it is emotionally.
While Holden is exploring and learning about sex, he’s also dealing with a deep and wounding grief. Catcher takes place in the fifties, when there was little understanding of how deeply grief can affect the human psyche. Even so, Salinger expertly weaves a tale about how one boy is weighed down with the depression and helplessness that surrounds the loss of his brother, as well as how the grief he is saddled with taints the threshold to adulthood he is rapidly approaching. WordPress blogger and literature expert Sarita Garcia explains how Holden’s very name is symbolic of his youth, explaining, “Caulfield, his last name, relates to recurring theme of childhood innocence. A ‘caul’ is defined as a part of the amnion, one of the membranes enveloping the fetus, which sometimes is around the head of a child at its birth. The caul protects young children, just as Holden dreams to do when he tells Phoebe his ideal profession would be the catcher in the field of rye” (Garcia 2). His first name, she says, refers to how he ‘holds’ himself back, away from the shallow social situations like football games and school (Salinger 1). Teens who read Holden’s agonizing narrative often feel connected with his struggle. Holden’s words speak to the typical depressed teen. In chapter 6, he has a meltdown and attacks his roommate Stradlater after he insults the paper Holden wrote about his dead brother’s baseball mit. Holden keeps calling the kid a ‘moron’ and worse, all the while getting angrier and angrier until the moment bursts and the two wind up locked in a dorm-room fistfight (Salinger 44). One bloody showdown later, Holden is left in a heap of sadness and memory. Though it appears at first that his distress is just superficial choler towards his classmate, further analysis indicates that the deep-set anger Holden feels, both towards Stradlater and towards the world, stems from his loss. He’s stuck in the second stage of grief, unable to heal. Child psychologist Joy Johnson explains how preteens and teens often deal with loss, stating, “Children in this age group (ten to teen) have feelings that are similar to those of adults. They want details, and often they will use black humor (such as) death jokes… We’re likely to see more anger and more acting out from this age group. Teens may withdraw or risk death to prove they’re invincible, throwing parents into panic and despair” (Johnson 31). Students who have the opportunity to delve into Salinger’s expository narrative may, in turn, remember a time they grieved, how they too might’ve felt deep anger and remorse. They can learn from Holden, who never had a healthy outlet to deal with his brother’s death, and perhaps learn better, healthier coping mechanisms when they inevitably go through similar tribulations.
In a feature done by Huffington Post, author Maddie Crum debates the novel’s many life lessons, stating that Holden’s “frustrations with the disingenuousness of others, and especially his grievances about dating and lost love, can help readers to understand that they aren’t the only one coping with problems, big or petty” (Crum 2). Not only are the scenes depicting Holden’s depression expository to the nature of grief and despair, but also, they are also already so relatable to the average teen. In connecting to the teen mind, Salinger wins the trust of his young readers, giving him an opportunity to make his point. The dark themes of loss and tragedy as well as Holden’s deteriorating innocence that many find averse in the story are the very themes that make it so indispensable.
Without some exposure to the harsh realities of the world, teens may not fully develop until they are thrown into adulthood. By showing them ‘mature’ themes like those portrayed in Catcher in the Rye in ways that are healthy and controlled, parents and guardians can rest assured that these real-world issues will not smack their children in the face as soon as they come of age and leave home. This exposure also opens up the door to conversations, which are key to guiding teens over the same threshold that Holden crosses alone. After all, all he ever wanted was someone to talk to.
Crum, Maddie. “Here’s What ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ Can Teach You About Life.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 1 Jan. 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/01/catcher-in-the-rye_n_4524045.html. Accessed 20 Sept. 2017.
Garcia, Sarita. “The Catcher In The Rye – The Etymology and Symblism of Characters’ Names.” Martita’s Place – Literature in English and Spanish, WordPress, 12 Mar. 2006, mhgaray.wordpress.com/2006/03/12/the-catcher-in-the-rye-the-etymology-and-symblism-of-characters-names/. Accessed 21 Sept. 2017.
Johnson, Joy. “Talking to children about grief and death.” Mothering, Jan. 1998, p. 72. Psychology Collection, Gale Library Database, libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl= http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=PPPC&sw=w&u=mlin_n_amespubl&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA54308817&it=r&asid=9a340895065af64da4bb2ea71167250a. Accessed 26 Sept. 2017.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown and Company, 1951.
TIME Staff. “The Hunger Games Reaches Another Milestone: Top 10 Censored Books.” Time, Time Magazine, 26 Sept. 2008, entertainment.time.com/ 2011/01/06/removing-the-n-word-from-huck-finn-top-10-censored-books/slide/the-catcher-in-the-rye-2/. Accessed 23 Sept. 2017
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