Youthful angst was appropriated by Americans in the 20th century. First the Beatniks, then hippies, then Generation X, all rebelled against the "oppression" of previous generations, nurturing feelings of displacement and obscured identity. Angst has become a suburban joke (with Goth kids, emo kids, and bad poetry posing as the real thing), but it's very real and peculiarly modern.
Holden Caulfield is the poster child of angst-ridden youth. He spends much of the novel in New York City, highlighting the role ruthless urbanization has played in the rise of angst. Holden experiences alienation even (maybe especially) when he's surrounded by people. From his expulsion at an expensive prep school to his odyssey through the city and fear of returning home, Holden exemplifies the confusion of his peers.
A lot of people read The Catcher in the Rye because it was censored, though to most modern readers it's pretty tame (Holden drops a couple f-bombs near the end). But don't read this novel because it was censored. Read it to understand the source of the nearly ubiquitous disease of teen angst.
Holden is no star student. Expelled for bad grades, yet excelling at English, his problem is that he doesn't care—classes bore him, and he can't concentrate due to an abiding sense of separation and exile. He doesn't get along with other students. He doesn't like his teachers (except one, who treats him like a human). When he leaves Pencey to wander New York alone, Holden can't seem to connect with girls, adults, or anyone else (except his little sister Phoebe).
It's hypocrisy and narcissim that Holden hates. Since society is full of both, his misanthropy is universal. In a world where miscreant teens are carted off to expensive schools, where no one knows anyone, where self-reflection is discouraged, what Holden really struggles against is the difficulty and uncertainty of growing up.
In the apocalypse of urban America where community is unknown, the rise from boyhood to manhood is made alone, without guidance, and with no comfort from the wearying and constant changes in one's self-image. Because his experiences confirm his suspicions about people, and because no one offers to aid his search for self, he falls further and further from human context and further and further into his own mind.
Whether Holden embodies the traits he despises is up to the reader. But his directionless search for self-identity is the focus of the novel, and where Salinger's genius lies. Holden's stream-of-consciousness ramblings can be hard to follow, but Salinger managed to distill the essence of American teen angst for successive generations. While you probably don't want to end up like Holden Caulfield, if you were ever a teenager and found it difficult,you probably want to read this book.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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