Friday, January 29, 2010

Out of Step

I was watching PBS last night, and they had two white men on elegizing about J. D. Salinger.

I wonder, seeing some of the tributes, if I'm the only person who thought The Catcher in the Rye was a waste of my time in high school.

I have to admit, I haven't reread it since. Nor have I reread the Hemingway books that irritated me. I swear, I counted and he said on the first page of one book that it was raining six times. Six times. Yeah, I figured it out. It's raining. Six times.

It's not that I didn't read sexist stuff a-plenty back then (and now), but those books especially, just irritated me. I remember my friend Eric and I mocking tyhe BS slang. Being high schoolers, we just mocked and didn't really analyze our response to the book or characters. Retrospectively, for me, a lot of the response had to do with gender. Really, we were asked to identify with this privileged white male running around New York City in the 50s. But Eric was Chinese-American, so maybe his response had something to do with the racism I vaguely remember in the text? Maybe ours was the reaction of suburban kids for whom New York City was someplace unimaginable and (to be honest) just not that interesting compared to the city near us. Maybe ours was the reaction of kids who'd grown up in the 60s/70s and weren't nostalgic for the 50s?

And as long as I'm thinking back, I want to apologize to Ms. Jackson for being a rude teenaged idiot in class. I'd want to smack myself.

J.D. Salinger may have been a wonderful person (or not), but that book was pure torture for me.


  1. Over the past day or so I've come to that same conclusion, actually, about most of the books I read in high school. I read some of those "required" classics but most had a male protagonist and I simply could not identify with those you mention (Hemingway and Salinger), and now that I think about it, the only one I really liked (The Scarlet Letter) had a female lead.

    Very interesting observations you've you've got me thinking :)

  2. Not for the gender stuff, but I didn't like the book either. Big "so what?" reaction. And I was an alienated teen.

  3. It's interesting how Catcher seems to generate such strongly positive or negative reactions in most of the discussions I've been reading. (FWIW, I liked it when I read it as a teenager -- for pleasure the first time, then later in school -- but haven't felt particularly moved to read it again as an adult, so I'm going from memory here.)

    I'm wondering if that word "identify" might be the crux of it. I see so many people saying that they either did or didn't identify with Holden when they read it as teenagers and yet I'm not convinced that the novel itself asks us to identify with him (although some high school teachers might*). It seems to me that it's about capturing his voice, in all of its idealistic and immature and self-absorbed glory, but how we respond to that voice is up to us. But I haven't read it in years, so I don't know how accurate that impression is.

    * This sort of pedagogy is pretty common at the high school level, right? Hence all of those freshman and sophomores who want to write papers about whether a work is "relateable." I really wish high school teachers would do more to wean students away from the idea that they should identify with what they read, but of course, they have a much harder job than we do, and maybe it's necessary to encourage identification as a way in to the text. I don't know. Anyway, I guess this is kind of a tangent.

  4. i remember thinking it was more interesting than some of the things we were reading, but it made no other impression. hemingway, on the other hand, i came to hate with a burning passion -- my teacher talked me into doing a HS honors project on him, and after reading all 800 of his dudely novels, i concluded that he was a one-note band as a writer, and a pathetic excuse for a human being.

    probably hemingway's life was more complex than i recognized at 18. i later read some of his journalism, and thought he was a better reporter than novelist. still, his influence on me was very far from what he evidently intended: he was one of the single strongest reasons for exploring feminism and celebrating the range of voices that made more sense to me.

  5. fretful is reminding me why i was interested in catcher -- the character's voice as a teenager was so different, and it captured an emotional tone that resonated.

  6. I *am* a privileged white male, and never liked Catcher the three times I read it--on a recommendation in high school, again in college, and again in grad school. I think it might have been assigned in grad school, though I don't recall anything of the discussion, just that every time I read it, I expected to "get" what I had obviously missed before. And I think I did get it, but really I found Holden a hackneyed character. Not an issue so much of being "relateable" (hate that word)as he felt like a kind of vehicle that was meant to drive me (a bit clumsily) in a certain direction. I also think I was colored by the Holden-worship when I think Salinger was perhaps more critical than the zealots admit.

    I like Hemingway, though perhaps because I haven't read him now for quite a few years and really only read a handful of his novels. The writing can be a bit formulaic at times, almost a parody of himself. As for the male bluster, that never bothered me so much since it seemed a bit of bellowing spectacle I never took at face value. I always felt that deconstructed itself, and in fact, that gap in signification is what I've probably liked most about Hemingway.

    Again, it's not a question of identification(though I'd say that without some ability to identify somewhere or in some way, even perhaps as a silent partner in the text and perhaps disliking a protagonist, reading wouldn't be worthwhile).

  7. One of my older brothers wanted me to read Catcher. He identified. The way Holden treated Phoebe ticked me off mightily.

  8. I'm SO glad I'm not the only one who didn't identify with Catcher in the Rye. I was an avid reader, and by the time I got around to Catcher, I'd already read ten other books that were way better.

  9. richard11:36 AM

    Catcher in the Rye never did nothin' for me, although it was a favorite for a number of my high school friends (male and female). This is not to say that my taste went to the less self-obsessed characters--I read and re-read Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, which must mark an epic peak in solipsism.

    Hemingway, though, I have long been ambivalent about. I liked his writing well enough until I discovered Gertrude Stein. It seemed to me, right away, that Hemingway's style was basically Stein with the punctuation put back in. Then there's the whole weird relationship between the two of them. That he would learn so much from her and then go on the attack when he realized(rather belatedly, it seemed to me) that Alice Toklas was more than just her roommate...despicable.

  10. Thank you. I was never assigned Catcher in high school, but my best friend loved it, so I tried. It's on the long list of books I started and got bored with.

    I did read more Hemingway, though that got boring too. On the other hand, I loved (in high school -- haven't tried recently) Henry James. Go figure. I was the only one in my HS English class who enjoyed reading Portrait of a Lady. But then my comfort read in HS was Jane Austen, and I also read all of the Brontes and all of Willa Cather.

    Just an old fashioned girl, I guess.

  11. my sister's been sorting through our late mom's stuff, and she turned up the paper i wrote 35 years ago on hemingway. i'm interested to see just how awful it was [despite what must have been good marks from my teacher].

  12. Another big ho-hum for Catcher in the Rye. Neat concept and some neat elements of execution but not a compelling story for my reading!

  13. Anonymous5:26 PM

    hated it and my response was totally about gender. I got that I was supposed to resonate with him but the things he said about "girls" pissed me off and the only female character in the thing was a big waste of time. I wasn't required to read it in class. I read it because I thought I should, since so many of my friends had read it and loved it. I really and truly hated it.

  14. As a high school teacher who teaches Catcher to freshmen each year (albeit to girls only, which I'm sure changes the tone of discussion), let me chime in to say that I think FP has it exactly right: the novel doesn't ask us to identify with Holden at all -- indeed, I'd say it pushes us away from doing so -- but rather to have compassion for him. I find it a lovely novel, one with scenes that moves me to tears when we realize just how depressed Holden is and yet how much he yearns for connection. (And, in my own defense if not that of all English teachers everywhere, let me say that I don't at all teach literature by asking students to identify with protagonists!)

    Maybe it helps that I didn't read it until grad school, and so no one ever tried to get me to identify with Holden. The age at which one first reads a novel makes a big difference, I think. E.g., I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in my early 20s and found it unbelievably annoying; I think I might have enjoyed it more either in high school or in my 30s.

    I also like Salinger's other work; I mean, "For Esme, with Love and Squalor?" Come on, that's a great story! Which doesn't mean that Salinger was a wonderful person -- by all accounts, he was pretty awful, actually -- but I do think he is a gifted writer who deserves to be read without the distorting lens of "identification."