Posted by: Jeanie F | February 16, 2010

Holden’s Grandchildren

On January 29, following the death of JD Salinger,  the New York Times feature, “Room for Debate,” posed these questions:

Does “Catcher in the Rye” resonate with teenagers today? Does the Holden Caulfield version of alienation speak to a generation connected on Facebook?

They posed the questions to six adults:

  • Poet and writer, Jay Parini
  • Writer Elizabeth Wurtzel
  • Website founder Anastasia Goodstein
  • English Professor Mark Bauerlein
  • High School English Teacher Patrick Welsh

The answers were thoughtful and, to those of us who love a good literary debate, interesting to contemplate.

Having taught high school English myself (but never Catcher in the Rye), I had to think about this. I taught at an upper middle class suburban high school where the majority of students were energetic, interested in good grades and getting into a good college, and drove better cars than their teachers. This is not to say that there weren’t many among them who truly suffered from alienation and disenfranchisement, but they tended to lurk in the shadows of their peers who – at least outwardly – seemed remarkably well-rounded, well-nourished, self-satisfied and, yes, a bit superficial.

I question whether they would even begin to understand the world that Holden inhabited and how he struggled with his demons. It seems that many of the people who answered the question for The NYT felt much the same way.

Wurtzel says:

But I’m not sure the latter-day teenager would find comfort in Caulfield the way a few generations past have, because I suspect they are no longer exactly teenagers anymore. As a marketing concept, as a Twitter tribe, as girls who shop at Forever 21 and boys who skateboard, of course teenagers still exist. But as a true age of rebellion and confusion, adolescence went away with the 20th century.

Welsh observes:

. . . while Holden does complain a lot, he does have the courage to blow off school, a move many of today’s kids, obsessed with building resumes to get into the name colleges, could never contemplate.

So far, this was my own interpretation of how today’s teenager would view Holden’s self-imposed isolation and angst.

BUT – the NYT was apparently beset with complaints from teens themselves that NO ONE ASKED THEM!

On February 1, the Times published a follow-up column in “Room for Debate” titled “Teenagers Speak Up on Salinger”. It seems we may have underestimated the alienation and disenfranchisement of today’s young people as letter after letter attested to their ability to relate to Holden’s problems. While we could argue whether teenagers who take the time to write to the New York Times about literature may be less than representative of their peers, I wouldn’t write them off as out of touch. Here are a few excerpts:

Plenty of teenagers still love Catcher in the Rye. In fact, my Facebook feed was full of tributes to Salinger the day he died. If that doesn’t prove that this book has got appeal that spans generational differences, I don’t know what could. (CM Dugan)
The Catcher in the Rye” is not dated, uninteresting, or irrelevant to my generation as compared to yours. Holden’s rebellious search to understand human nature and himself, is something every human being must go through at some point of his or her life — and will most likely never complete. (J Clay)
What matters is that Holden is real, teenage angst still exists and if the “stupid” adults of today can’t recognize that, maybe they should spend more time with teenagers. (Chelsea)


 It seems that Catcher in the Rye continues to help young people make sense of their lives – and isn’t that what the best literature does for us?



  1. Interesting debate!

    Is there a way to follow your blog using RSS feeds? I don’t see a link, but maybe I’m just missing it.

    • I don’t have a link for RSS yet (WordPress doesn’t provide one), but I just read about a way to import one from Google. I’m going to play around with it this weekend, so please check back. Thanks for your reply and your interest in following my blog!

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