Ninety years ago, a middle class white teenager would have most likely sported a clean haircut and corduroy pants and would have had nothing less than compliant views toward his parents. Today’s middle class white teenager has a shaggy haircut, wears ripped up jeans, and acts more independent of his parents. Post-war literature can be partially credited for this transition from a conventional youth to a rebellious one. J. D. Salinger, one of the foremost authors of the post-war literature movement, had an immense impact on post-war art, culture, and literature, through his use of dynamic characters.
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In his most well known novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger focuses the novel on the main character, Holden Caulfield, rather than the plot. Holden Caulfield represents the hardships of adolescence. An intelligent, wealthy, young man, Holden is a teenage boy who is traumatized by the death of his younger brother. Holden is constantly failing out of school and finds himself lacking direction in life. He describes almost every occupation, ranging from:
school deans (Page 3)
military men (Page 86)
lawyers (Page 172) as being “phony”, while also claiming that one of the
only career paths not worthy of being deemed as “fake” are writers. This mindset can also be seen in the teenage counterculture that celebrates writers and artists and dislikes monotonous white-collar jobs, as demonstrated by catchphrases such as “do your own thing”.
The motif of phoniness can also be found in Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey. During Part 1, Franny Glass is out to lunch with her boyfriend, Lane, who she has not seen in weeks. Feeling guilty that she did not miss Lane (Page 4) Franny realizes that she does feel as compassionate towards Lane as she once did. With a clear mind, Franny begins to find unbearable phoniness in her own boyfriend. Irritated to the point of a rant, Franny goes off on Lane:
Well, I don’t know what they are around here, but where I come from, a section man’s a person that takes over a class when the professor isn’t there or is busy having a nervous breakdown or is at the dentist or something. He’s usually a graduate student or something. Anyway, if it’s a course in Russian Literature, say, he comes in, in his little button-down-collar shirt and striped tie, and starts knocking Turgenev for about a half hour. Then, when he’s finished, when he’s completely ruined Turgenev for you, he starts talking about Stendhal or somebody he wrote his thesis for his M.A. on. Where I go, the English Department has about ten little section men running around ruining things for people, and they’re all so brilliant they can hardly open their mouths-pardon the contradiction. I mean if you get into an argument with them, all they do is get this terribly benign expression on their [faces] (Page 8).
Franny’s aggression towards phoniness led her to wound a relationship with her peer, however she defended her principles.
Salinger’s critical view on phoniness influenced writer David Eggers, whose adolescence bears resemblance to Holden Caulfield’s. In Eggers’ memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius he spills out his life story of a white, middle class college student who loses both parents in one year and is left with the responsibility of his 12 year-old brother. After the passing of his parents, Eggers revisits death in an anecdote he shares, where he must convince his friend to back off of a suicide attempt. In this scene, Eggers goes possibly even farther than Salinger in diagnosing phoniness by calling the very act of suicide, a reoccurring thought of Holden’s, as phony. “I mean, the drinking alone? The wine and pills and everything? You’re such a f-cking cliché!” (Page 233).
Salinger also helped to introduce the modern concept of “selling out”. To Salinger, selling out, or abusing a talent to receive money is one of the worst sins an artist can commit. Holden’s brother D.B. is a gifted writer who, after years without success writing short stories, turned to Hollywood to make his fortune. A passionate opponent of movies (again for their phoniness), Holden is quick to describe his brother as a “prostitute” (Page 2).
Punk culture, the teenage anti-establishment movement, was founded on the ideologies of Salinger. Just as Salinger’s characters were despised by phonies, Punk was created in response to a distaste of what the “fake” mainstream was producing. Iggy Pop, known as the godfather of punk, is an obvious follower of Salinger’s literature. In an interview, Iggy Pop, was asked what his opinion was on encores and how certain bands can be celebrated to the point of idolization. Iggy Pop responded, “You’ve seen so many trashy, fake-y, phony, hokey acts get encores. You know, I don’t want an encore, don’t give me an encore” (Gzowski). Earlier in the interview, Iggy also said, “I would enjoy sometime if everyone would just lay down on the floor, not applaud or pay any attention to me. Do you know what I mean?” (Gzowski). Not only is this a rejection to the attention seeking rock stars of his day, but it was almost like Holden Caulfield was sitting next to Iggy telling him what to say, considering Holden’s view on attention in Chapter 7: “Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.” (Page 52).
Now deemed a classic, The Catcher in the Rye, was also highly regarded when it was first published in 1951. Ben Welter wrote one of the first reviews of the novel and claimed “Month in, month out, novels don’t come much better.” However J. D. Salinger never wrote to please the critics. He wrote “just for [himself] and [his] own pleasure,” (Fosburgh). That is why, even though Salinger became a recluse after the success of The Catcher in the Rye, he “had been apparently been writing about [the fictional family the Glasses] nonstop,” (McGrath). The characteristic that Salinger is self-motivated is a quality found in many counterculture artists today, including Iggy Pop. When Gzowski mentioned to Iggy in their interview, that Iggy had developed a large international following, Iggy responded: “Are you happy to be popular? Do you get a big kick out of that? I suppose you’re popular. Well, you know, I don’t get a big kick out of it, really. I would just, I would just, uh, I’ve worked very hard for a very long time, and to try to make something that is beautiful enough so that I can enjoy itâ€¦” (Gzowski).
Youth alienation is also a common motif in Salinger’s literature that influenced post-war society. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden is frequently finding that he doesn’t fit in with society. In Chapter 2, Holden visits a teacher before he leaves his boarding school. The conversation between Holden and his teacher reflects not only his alienation, but also his incapability to relate to authorities:
“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”
“Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.”
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right-I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game (Page 8).
The fact that Holden does not respond to his teacher with his actual thoughts, but instead decides to just humor him, shows Holden’s insecurity, adding to his alienation. Holden is also unable to relate to his parents. Holden, a sensitive boy, who obviously needs somebody to speak and relate to, spoke about his closed relationship with his parents within one of the first lines of the book: “[My parents are] quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all–I’m not saying that–but they’re also touchy as hell.” (Page 1). Franny, from Franny and Zooey, also feels alienated, however she is portrayed as being alienated from her peers. Franny is out to lunch with her boyfriend, Lane, however the discussion is really just a series of arguments. When Lane mentions how talented Franny’s English professor is, Franny responds, “I do like him. I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect. . . . Would you excuse me for just a minute?” (Page 11).
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The idea of writing about an adolescent being alienated, or a “loner,” was not something that artists of Salinger’s time usually focused on. However, numerous novels, movies, and other forms of literature in the post-war society focus on loners. From the character of Spiderman, to Robert De Niro’s role in Taxi Driver, writing about loners became far more popular in the later half of the century. Stephen Chbosky wrote a novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is centered around an awkward teenager named Charlie, who has a loner aspect on life which can be seen through his view on his peers, “Things change. And friends leave. And life doesn’t stop for anybody” (Page 107).
Salinger tapped into an area of literature that had not been actively explored, and found success in this area by utilizing his unique, yet realistic, characters. Holden Caulfield, and the Glass Family not only provided support for those teenagers who suffer through their teenage years, but they also reinvented the teenage persona. The conventional teenage boy certainly would not have:
Not failed out of his prep school, nonetheless,
spent a week unsupervised in New York after doing so.
We cannot give J.D. Salinger complete credit for this transition. There were, of course, other important writers who brought about this new era, in addition to historical factors. However, his impact on the teenage culture, and post-war literature in general, have been immeasurable.
Chbosky, Stephen. Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc. 1999.
Eggers, David. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc. 2000.
Fosburgh, Lacey. “J.D. Salinger Speaks About His Silence.” The New York Times. 10/3/1974. The New York Times. 4/12/2010 http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/09/13/specials/salinger-speaks.html
McGrath, Charles. “J.D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91” The New York Times. 1/29/2010. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/books/29salinger.html
“Punk Rock Comes to Canada” Gzowski. CBC. Toronto, Canada. March 11, 1977.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.
Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. New York: Bantam, 1955.
Welter, Ben. “July 29,1951: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ review” Star Tribune. 10 Jan. 2010. Star Tribune. 15 April 2010 http://www.startribune.com/blogs/82988647.html
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