Is Holden Caulfield Still Relevant?

Salinger's beloved anti-hero comes in for a critical reckoning

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The Catcher in the Rye is surely the best-known work of J.D. Salinger, who died last week at age 91. But Holden Caulfield, the book's main character, is not universally beloved. Not everyone agrees that the moody, mouthy protagonist deserves his reputation as a hero of tortured adolescence. For every dozen admirers of Salinger's novel, there's a critic or social analyst questioning Holden's place in the canon.

  • Holden No Typical Teen Guardian's Theo Hobson takes issue with the usual characterization of Holden-as-Everyteen, arguing that Holden's particular neuroses are what gives Catcher its power. "The novel is not about teenage angst in general. At its heart is this very specific experience of feeling spiritually threatened by the power of sexual peer-pressure, this fear that sexual maturity entails a sacrifice of one's moral integrity."
  • Holden's Middle Path Doesn't Exist Anymore At a New York Times literary roundtable, Elizabeth Wurtzel wonders whether Catcher is relevant to a generation of overachievers and burnouts. "The world now is so much more dangerous, the temptations so much darker than anything Holden could have encountered, that kids are either L7-square or they're just messed up. The chance to be a tiny bit wild and crazy in the teenybopper tradition is not part of what we know."
  • Schools Have Domesticated Catcher Educators have defanged Catcher by putting it on the required reading list, argues Mark Borigini at Psychology Today. But he's not sure it was ever a masterwork of subversion: "Holden Caulfield is a rich kid, who blew an opportunity at a prep school; he seems a bit phony, a lot spoiled... and those of us who read [this novel] fall into the trap set by the phonies."
  • One Kid Can't Speak for Millions At American Thinker, Selwyn Duke is skeptical about the way Salinger depicts precocity. "I didn't experience teen 'angst,' and I didn't think everyone was a phony, either... In fact, I think the young are better epitomized by a starry-eyed idealism, where they expect some virtue, heroism, and idealism in others. For sure, the millions of youths who chanted 'yes, we can!' in 2008 expected those things."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.