Saturday, January 30, 2010

Out of Step - More on Salinger

I really appreciate the comments people have made, thank you.

Several folks talked about being asked to identify with protagonists, though What Now? points out that she doesn't ask that of her high school students. So I was thinking about that, and trying to remember back to my high school experience.

I don't remember any of my HS English teachers pushing identification, to be honest. We read a very white, male canon. As I recall, my high school teachers included Dr. Vaughn, an African American woman who had the misfortune to teach me twice! Ms. Jackson, a young, quite hip white woman, and Mr. Robinson, an African American man. I'm guessing they didn't get a lot of choice in the curriculum.

I think they were pretty sophisticated teachers, and handled pretty big classes with a good deal more kindness than I certainly deserved.

So, why do I remember my high school English classes with such dissatisfaction?

I think I was just a cranky, unhappy in the most petty and boring ways teenager. Anything I was made to do, I pretty much resented. I liked band the things I chose more because I chose them than anything else.

And the more I thought about Salinger (which I think I read in Ms. Jackson's American lit course, as a junior), I wonder if the whole "oh, this is so risque" attitude didn't feel flat to me, since I grew up in an era and area where a high schooler running around NYC wasn't nearly as scary as Zodiac or the Manson family, nor as exotic as the Haight, nor as challenging to my basic ideas (white, middle class) as the Black Panthers. Disaffected in my world might mean the SLA, and wasn't something that seemed the least bit attractive to a white, middle class girl.

The kids who were angry at my school were angry at real things, racism especially (but also relieved not to be worried about the Vietnam draft); some of us, and I was one, were biding our time, knowing we'd go away to college soon and get out of the suburbs.

Also, New York didn't have my attention; it wasn't on my radar. I wonder if that's a regional or experience thing? I've still only been to NYC once. It's a great city, as is Tokyo, for example, but it's not my City.

So then I got to thinking about the books I was reading that really grabbed my imagination. And I realized that I read very much for plot and setting, and with absolutely no appreciation for style. Maybe that's why Hemingway didn't grab me? I wasn't ready to appreciate style? Would I enjoy the books for style more now?

I loved books such as Paddle to the Sea (I know, it's a kids's book, but still), Island of the Blue Dolphins, My Side of the Mountain, Never Cry Wolf, In the Shadow of Man. I see a pattern here: I liked books that were about people striking out on their own, even though (or because) I had absolutely no wilderness experience. And I wasn't being told to identify with them, but was choosing to read and reread them because I did identify, and gender didn't much matter to me.

I was also starting to read books my neighbor suggested, Leon Uris, James Michener, big epic type books that took on more than a kid being cranky. Those books led me to Cancer Ward and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and those led me to The Gulag Archipelago (I know!) and into my depressive Russian lit era.

I think Holden Caulfield just couldn't compete with that sort of stuff in my adolescent imagination, and I certainly wasn't really aware of style or anything, so I wasn't "getting" his voice.

I wonder if, growing up in the suburbs, I felt an urge to turn one way or the other, toward urban or rural life, and at that time rural life seemed better? So my reading choices were often moving in a direction opposite to Holden's. (If so, that's amusing because now I'm more comfortable in urban settings, though I live in a semi-rural one.)


  1. I loved Leon Uris and Island of the Blue Dolphins too!

    I don't know if you are this way (now or as a teen), but I could not get past someone's style to see the underlying message. If I thought the writing style was crap, I'd stop within the first few pages and not bother. For instance, while I understand that Marilynne Robinson's _Gilead_ is written in a certain style, the horrible prose kept me from getting past the first few pages. As someone who writes for a living I just couldn't stand it.

    Maybe this makes me a lazy ass--I don't know--but I totally get what you are saying about plot and setting being so important.

  2. I'm really glad my high school teachers didn't assign anything we were supposed to identify with or like on some similar, personal, emotional level. Instead they assigned things we were supposed to *study* and appreciate intellectually, and study we did, but we also came to like much of it. I was completely obsessed with Thomas Hardy as a result -- just to give one example.

    Anyway, I didn't read Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, but read it as an adult, when I was the grader for a children's and adolescent lit class. And I found it heartbreaking. It was a little stylized -- I doubt any teenager really ever sounded like that -- but then so is the movie Heathers and the move Clueless and yet they also "got" teenagers on some level even if they don't "really" talk that way. But the sense of voice was overwhelming, and the isolation and depression of Holden was so moving to me. And as I recall (this was about 15 years ago now...memory is hazy), the adults in his world fail to see that he needs help rather than scolding -- it was a almost too realistic depiction of an era before people realized what depression was and how it wasn't really just "bad attitude."

    Anyway, that was my adult response, and I think that's probably what Salinger wanted. In fact, I think it's a book about a teen that's really for adults, and it's a mistake to assign it to teenagers. Had I read it as a teenager, I would've thought Holden was a whiny, annoying twit. At least I *know* that's what I thought of Hamlet at that age!

  3. Anonymous7:00 PM

    My friends and I did read stuff like Michener, which took on bigger issues. We were drawn to that sort of thing, I think. I don't know if it was further from our own existence. We were terrified and angry about things that seemed worse than a world full of phonies. I'm thinking of a terrible book we all read about AIDS, but I also read a lot of African America lit (esp. Alice Walker) and I loved George Orwell and a decent but not great short story by Stephen King about a school shooting that is still etched on my brain.

    I'm not sure we were pushed to identify with characters. I didn't read Catcher for a class, so I'm not sure how our teachers would have taught it. I don't remember talking to my friends about identifying with characters, though. I didn't really think in those terms, even where I can look back and see that I did like some books because I could identify with some characters.

    More than anything else, though, I read science fiction and fantasy. Hordes of it. And that was a whole different kettle of fish. By comparison, novels like Catcher in the Rye and The Old Man and the Sea felt like a whole lot of nothing much happening.

  4. It's interesting, one of my favorite novels as a teenager was War and Peace. And when you mentioned Michener, I thought yes, what I liked about W&P was the epic nature of it. And you capture exactly that sense of how a teenager follows a track. I went from War & Peace to Anna Karenina (note: innocent 15 year old misses a lot of that one); then Dostoevsky and later Solzhenitsyn.