As you may know by now, J.D. Salinger is dead. I hope that wherever he is now, he’s happier than he was here.
My thoughts, however, didn’t turn so much to the author as they did towards his most famous creation, the sullen teenage anti-hero, Holden Caulfield. I never really liked Holden, to be honest. I thought he was a spoiled brat who really needed to lighten up. He would have thought I was a complete and utter phony, I’m sure. But he spoke to an audience that, in 1951, I’m sure a lot of people didn’t even know existed – disaffected teenagers.
If you were a teen in the ’40s and ’50s, your literary peers were probably very little like you. Unless you were a Hardy Boy and off solving mysteries, you were probably mostly worried about problems that were pale shadows of adult problems – getting a job to pay for that new car, impressing the girl you like, balancing work with leisure time. The transition from youth to adulthood was a given, as far as most storytellers were concerned, and very few of them gave any thought to the existential crisis that defines being a teenager.
For those of you who don’t recall, here are the central pillars of teenage psychology:
1) Nothing that you don’t already know can possibly be worth knowing.
2) Everything sucks.
3) Nothing will ever change.
Okay, maybe not all teenagers, but I’m pretty sure that covers a large percentage of the population. And I don’t think that’s really changed, ever since the concept of the teenager was invented. It’s a nebulous world, a time with far more responsibilities than a child has, and far more freedom than an adult is allowed, and that can mess you up if you’re the type who thinks a lot about these things.
Unfortunately for him, Caulfield (and by extension, Salinger) was just that type. When the book came out, and for decades after that, he became the touchstone character for teens who looked around at the way they were presented in the media, at the way their peers tried to behave and their parents pressured them to be and asked, “Is this really who I’m supposed to be?” Holden understood. Holden had been there and thought the same thoughts that you thought, and was a character that you could rely on. Yes, he was essentially unreliable and wholly unlikable, but you could at least come back to him when you started to worry that you weren’t living up to the perfect image of what a teenager is supposed to be.
In this day and age, though, is Holden Caulfield necessary anymore? I would maintain that he isn’t.
In the 21st century, if you’re a disaffected teen, there are websites and forums just for you. There are decades of rock and roll that Holden would have loved if he’d been born just a little bit later. Largely thanks to Salinger, Disaffected Teen Fiction is practically an official sub-genre of Young Adult Fiction, TV and movies try harder to address the actual problems of adolescence, and it is, by and large, much easier for a teenager these days to find others who are going through the same existential quandary that he or she is.
True, the Fictional Teenager still exists, kept alive by the best marketing drones that Madison Avenue can buy. And even the Disaffected Teen has become a market of its own. But the fact remains that there are still outlets for people who question themselves and their place in the world. A 21st century Holden Caulfield doesn’t have to drop out of school and wander New York City looking for hookers and validation. All he has to do is go to a bookstore or start a LiveJournal and he’ll find all the validation and meaning he wants. Hookers are a little more of a challenge, though.
So perhaps it’s time for Holden Caulfield to relax and slouch off into that phony sunset. While he may not be able to catch all those children who are coming through the rye, there are now a whole lot more people trying.