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Another Portland Blog

Friday, October 22, 2004

 

Defending Caulfield

Armed Prophet passed along this link to a recent Washington Post article penned by Jonathan Yardley. In it, the columnist attracts the merits of The Catcher in the Rye, perpetual staple of sophomore English classes around the country. For many, myself included, JD Salinger's 1951 novel is a volatile little trade paperback. It's fueled and extinguished the flames of adolescent angst for decades, still sells 250,000 copies per year, inadvertently lead to the death of John Lennon and left a perpetual dent in the side of American literature.

For Yardley to write the classic off as a "maladroit" is inexcusable. In the column, he shines a light on Salinger's awkward prose as an example of why Catcher should no longer be taught in schools. Considering that it's narrated by a bitter, 17-year old dropout, what does he expect? The writing comes across as a reaction to the sort of works that dominated classrooms in the early part of the century: stale poetry and tedious parlor dramas written by 19th century authors like Austin and Tolstoy. If Yardley really Salinger's writing is "execrable" and a "poor attempt at teen speak," apparently he's never picked up a copy of Huckleberry Finn.

The columnist argues that there's no way that students in public schools can relate to Caulfield's upperclass troubles, as if they could sympathize with Chaucer's leering pilgrims, Orwell's farmyard parables, Achebe's tribal councils or (one more) Faulkner's brooding, southern-fried dynasties. If the columnist dislikes "cheap sentimentality," he should have another look at Boo Radley's daring rescue in the high-school standard To Kill a Mockingbird or just about any stanza in Romeo and Juliet. Each will no doubt have him puking buckets. As for the passage Yardley sets his sights on, the record scene is ripe with metaphors ranging from the ol' "loss of innocence" all the way to "the emotional attachment we place on objects." To his credit, at least he didn't go after the bit about the ducks in Central Park.

For me at least, Salinger made high-school English a little less insufferable. Based on its continued sales numbers and the numerous books that have been written on Salinger's idosyncries, Catcher in the Rye will continued to be universally beloved for many years to come.

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