Today we mourn the passing of an icon. On Wednesday the 91-year-old J. D. Salinger died in the New Hampshire home where he had lived in seclusion for more than fifty years.
Salinger published very few works in his lifetime; he abhorred fame and celebrity; he wrote his most famous work a lifetime ago, in 1951. Yet he has had a tremendous effect on American literature in general and on young adult literature in particular. With his novel The Catcher in the Rye (and to a lesser extent, with his short stories) Salinger influenced several generations of readers and writers, elevating the public’s expectations of what a book could and should be.
The Catcher in the Rye was one of those rare books that spoke profoundly to readers— not just a few readers, but many readers, male and female, again and again, since it was first published in 1951. Though it was not the first modern English-language novel to feature uncensored sex, language, and violence, it was the first to really do it right. The frank story and prose were accessible and engaging for the ordinary person (unlike, for instance, James Joyce’s Ulysses), but underneath the popular props of sex-’n-swearing was a literary work of depth, passion, and pathos. It has been a permanent feature of high school English classes for decades, both as a curriculum text and as a perennial target of indignant parents who want it banned. If I am interpreting this correctly, it is the second-most-frequently-banned classic book in American schools and libraries.
The swearing in The Catcher in the Rye seems a little tame these days, and even the protagonist’s sexual encounters are chaste compared to the average contemporary young adult novel. But though parts of the book are dated, Holden Caulfield himself still resonates. Readers, especially male readers, all seem to identify with Holden (sort of how all readers, especially female readers, identify with Hermione Granger). We all see our own unique experiences in Holden’s angst and suffering, and we all imagine that we share Holden’s intellect when he muses about life and love and ducks in a pond.
J.D. Salinger showed the world that the best way to reach teen audiences was to speak their language—replete with swearing, slang, and casual dialogue—and to discuss things that mattered to them: sex, relationships, the purpose of life. American literature is richer because of him, and young adult literature in particular is more meaningful, more accessible, more enjoyable. If you haven’t read him before, I invite you to start with The Catcher in the Rye, or perhaps with something shorter; his short stories are not as well known, but they’re superb. And if you loved Holden Caulfield, let me point you toward another coming-of-age book that satisfies in many of the same ways, Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone.