When Harry Met Holden
The first time I read Catcher in the Rye all I could think was damn, this douchebag whines a lot. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s kind of hard to relate to a privileged prep school kid. Let’s face it: society will never let the Holden Caulfield’s of the world fall through the cracks.
When kids like Holden get into trouble, they don’t end up on the streets. They end up in private hospital beds. They have networks, and resources, and houndstooth jackets.
But that’s exactly what makes Catcher in the Rye so interesting. The concept of adolescence as a distinct period between childhood and adulthood is a modern invention. Before WWII, it was common for 13 year olds to go and work in factories or in the fields. Sheer economic necessity forced kids to grow up, quick-like:
But as post-war American society grew more affluent, kids started to depend on their parents long past adolescence. The awkward age between puberty and independent adulthood is what the coming-of-age novel is all about. Novels like Catcher exist so that privileged kids can make sense of their own lives and their place in the world.
Nowadays, we don’t need coming-of-age novels because nobody has to grow up.
Can it be any surprise then that Holden, a wealthy, self-centered, narcissistic douchebag would cast himself as the savior, watching over children playing in a field of rye, preventing them from falling over the edge into the abyss of adulthood? Of course Holden is the savior. It could only be thus.
So yeah, I’m not a Holden Caulfield fan, but lately I’ve come around on Catcher because, well dammit, it makes me nostalgic. Nowadays, we don’t need coming-of-age novels because nobody has to grow up. Adolescence is no longer an awkward period between childhood and adulthood. When childhood ends you lurch into a wretched state of infantile uselessness that never seems to end:
- Baby food isn’t just for babies. Consider the smoothie: baby food for “grown ups”.
- You never have to defend your ideas, no matter how puerile. Safe spaces ensure that you will never be challenged inside your bubble.
- What about the humiliation of rejection by the opposite sex? Nope. When someone swipes left, you don’t even know it happened.
Can it be any surprise that modern high school kids read books written for 5th graders? Instead of confronting the merciless poverty of Dickens, or the moral torment of Dostoevsky, kids are reading fantasy and vampire schlock. Nothing against fantasy but…oh fuggit. Fantasy is the problem. Here’s what you get when little boys don’t grow up:
Yep, modern literature doesn’t have anybody quite like Holden, the chain smoking fuck-up who goes on a three-day bender and ogles a MILF on a train and gets his ass kicked by a pimp. Not exactly a model citizen, but consider the alternative.
Harry is another prep school kid, and also a self-important brotagonist. The difference is that everyone in Harry’s world treats him like he’s different and special. He’s told so often that he’s destined for greatness that he begins to believe it. He vanquishes evil and saves humanity by waving a magic wand. Because that’s how the world works, right?
Harry is a précis of modernity itself.
Harry isn’t just a symbol of the modern adolescent. He is a précis of modernity itself. If you’re not feeling him, you’re too old to get it.
In truth, it’s not fair to compare Holden to Harry, because they’re reflections of different problems. Holden knows that he’s on the cusp of turning into something he detests. Can Holden resist the phoniness of adulthood? At novel’s end the reader is left to wonder.
Harry has a different problem. Harry doesn’t need to save innocent children from a weary and cynical adulthood. No, Harry needs to save the entire world from the evil perpetuated by morally degenerate adults.
And therein lies the perverse appeal of YA books. The idealized state of perpetual childishness that Holden dreamed of 60 years ago has become our mainstream reality.
Like it or not, the coming-of-age novel is a relic of the past. So farewell, Holden. I’ll miss you (kind of).
About the Author
Theremin Jones is a literary critic who lives and works in Oakland, California. Theremin is currently working on a book of essays. An avid hiker and camper, Theremin is never more at home than in the great outdoors.