Holden Caulfield: Giving Voice to Generations
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
NPR recently launched a new series exploring famous American fictional characters. It's called In Character. Today, we're going to talk about a character who took teen angst to a whole another level. His story was published in 1951 to immediate acclaim and immediate disdain. It was the target of numerous censorship campaigns. But it's still required reading in schools across the country. Who is this most American of characters? Holden Caulfield, from J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel "The Catcher in the Rye."
We're going to speak with two adult Holden admirers in a moment. But first, we wondered how teenagers today remember Holden. We sent reporter Joel Rose to find out.
Ms. KERA APPLE(ph): He was really annoying. And I kind of wanted to punch him in the face because he wouldn't stop whining.
Mr. JAKE POLOMBO(ph): He's like a pretty disillusioned guy. (Unintelligible) and anything. And he was the one who was like angry about the kids losing their innocence and he was like uncomfortable about, like, embarking in an adult world.
Ms. CATHY REAGAN(ph): I know that I really understood him and felt for him a lot, just because a lot of the time when you're dealing with becoming an adult and just dealing with upsetting things in your life, you do sort of find yourself in that in-between place where you're unhappy but you're not devastated and just really hard to sort through.
Mr. POLOMBO: And like I was sad the day I turned 18. My angst was like - it's like my childhood just is gone. And it's like you try to cling on to it and that's what that book is about.
SEABROOK: Jake Polombo and Kera Apple and Cathy Reagan at the University of Pennsylvania. "The Catcher in the Rye" is Holden Caulfield's own story of his expulsion from boarding school and the, quote, "madman stuff" that follows during a weekend alone in New York.
Written in a teenage slang of the '50s, it becomes the interior monologue of boy pushed to the brink.
Ms. STEPHANIE SAVAGE (Executive Producer, "The O.C.," "Gossip Girl"): I remember being amazed to find this crazy book about a 16-year-old kid having a nervous breakdown. And it was such a revelation to me that there could be books like that and voices like that in literature.
SEABROOK: That's Stephanie Savage, one of two adults we turned to who specialize in stories of tortured youth. Savage was executive producer FOX Television's "The O.C." and is one of the forces behind the new show "Gossip Girl." And Tobias Wolff is the author of the memoir "This Boy's Life" and the novel "Old School."
Tobias Wolff, you were 6 years old when J.D. Salinger published "The Catcher in the Rye" in 1951. Do you remember reading it for the first time?
Mr. TOBIAS WOLFF (Author, "This Boy's Life," "Old School"): Oh, do I ever? I was 15 or so before I came to it. And the reading was made all richer for me by the fact that I was in exactly such a school as Pencey Prep.
I had a bit part in a play called "Room Service" and it was in the winter in a school just like Pencey Prep. And I started reading it backstage between my little appearances and I was laughing so hard I got so caught up in it that I kept missing my cues.
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Mr. WOLFF: But there I was. I mean, I was in this place and he knew that world exactly. And these long winter nights in a school like that where the guys get bored and start picking on each other, and every fault of everyone around you becomes magnified to the thousandth degree. And his war against the adult world which all of us were waging. And it was so sweet and subversive to read that book. I will never forget that.
SEABROOK: Help me remind our listeners of who Holden Caulfield is - his story. He's obsessed with phonies. He's been kicked out of prep school, which is full of phonies. He's wondering around New York City in a red hunting hat.
Mr. WOLFF: He's a very, very funny fellow. And he's very acute in spotting phonies. The problem with Holden is that, to him, everyone, after a while, seems phony. As funny the book as it is, and reading through it again recently, I found it devastatingly sad.
Ms. SAVAGE: I found that too, rereading it again. And you forget - the memory you have is of the warmth and the poignancy and the astuteness of the observations. And you forget how truly, truly sad it is and how is that he is through the whole thing. He keeps you bursting into tears. He says at one point that he thinks about killing himself. It's very sad.
Mr. WOLFF: Yeah. His younger brother who he has idolized for his innocence -the way he now does his sister Phoebe - has died. And he ruminates on the - on going to his grave and being caught in a downpour and thinking of leaving his brother there underground in this terrible day. And later, he himself is walking along the street in New York. And it should be festive. It's around Christmastime. The shoppers are out. And he is broken into a sweat. Every time he steps off the curb, he thinks I'm going to go down and down forever. No one will ever see me again. This kind of calls up that image of his brother in his grave. And he starts praying to his brother - Allie, don't let me disappear. Don't let me disappear. There's such terror there. The humor that has sustained so much of this novel begins to unravel at the end and you're left with this naked soul in pain and in conflict. Finally, you see not with the world but with himself.
SEABROOK: Stephanie Savage, you worked on the TV show "The O.C." And your new show is called "Gossip Girl." And they're both, you know, teen soap operas. What do you see in Holden emotionally that connects him to today's teenagers?
Ms. SAVAGE: I think that sense of yearning is very key. And that sense of being trapped kind of between two worlds - between the world of children and the world of adults - which, in Holden's case, I mean, it's really interesting. Holden really is living in the last days before Elvis, when teenagers hadn't really been invented yet. Teenagers were just starting to get a culture of their own back then. And you see that in the book, where you can choose the carousel in Central Park or you can choose the wicker bar. You can go on a skating date or you can have a prostitute come up to your hotel room. And there's not really that sense of teen culture that there is now.
SEABROOK: Is that why you call Holden Caulfield the first teen, Stephanie Savage, because there wasn't really a teen culture before that, in your words?
Ms. SAVAGE: Yeah, the idea of teenagers really kind of emerged in the early '40s. And kind of exploded in the post-war prosperous 1950s. After the war, you had a situation where more people where finishing high school, there was the rise of college, people were marrying later, young people were becoming employed and having their own spending money, and you've got a kind of corresponding teen culture that grew up to support that, the kind of drive-ins and soda shops and cruising. Holden is living before that, trying to pass himself off as an adult in all these situations even though he's still a kid in Manhattan in 1951. I think it's the perfect place to do that.
SEABROOK: Tobias Wolff, you said that you read a different "Catcher in the Rye" as you get older. Have your impressions of Holden Caulfield changed as you've become an adult?
Mr. WOLFF: Oh, yes, of course. When I first read it, I felt as if you were a confederate of mine, you know, a teammate in this skepticism about the worthiness of adult life, and now I look at him, in a way, like his old teacher, Mr. Antolini, who pats his head while he's asleep. Then Holden wakes up from that and imagines that the man has made a pass at him he can't even accept that, that avuncular affection that the man is overcome by. And I have that avuncular affection for Holden and I have a degree of sorrow, really, that I couldn't possibly have felt at that time.
SEABROOK: Hmm. Let me ask you this, Tobias Wolff, you talked about Holden's teacher, Mr. Antolini. Mr. Antolini tells Holden he's riding for some kind of terrible, terrible fall.
Mr. WOLFF: Mm-hmm.
SEABROOK: Mr. Antolini says it's the kind of fall designed for men who are looking for something their environment can't provide them with. Do you imagine what Holden Caulfield would be like as an adult?
Mr. WOLFF: I've never been able to imagine Holden as an adult. He is forever Holden within the limits of this novel and it's - that's a really wonderful question because often I - my imagination continues to live in a work that I do have some conception of how, for example, Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby," what kind of life he had after that novel?
Holden is - I don't know how he's going to survive the kind of crisis and spirit that he is undergoing here, whether he will be able to accept the little corruptions and compromises that in the kind of lubricant so falsity(ph) that make up our dealings with each other as we get older to some extent or other? Whether if he did accept those things he could ever then live comfortably with himself? That's a very open question for me at the end of this novel.
SEABROOK: Stephanie Savage?
Ms. SAVAGE: Yeah. It's hard to imagine Holden as an adult because I think even if you compare him to James Dean character Jim Stark in "Rebel without a Cause," you feel like in that movie, at the end of the movie he really has grown up and he's had, you know, this terrible tragedies occur - there was two deaths in the movie. But you feel like he comes out the other side of it, a man.
And I feel like Holden comes out of the other side of this journey alive and not necessarily in a particularly different place than he has started just that he survived this crisis and who knows when the next one will be coming. And I think for that reason that's part of why, you know, he lives on in our memories as this kind of original teenager because we've never had to imagine him growing up.
SEABROOK: Television producer Stephanie Savage and author Tobias Wolff, and of course the spirit of Holden Caulfield in absentia. Thanks you all so much.
Mr. WOLFF: Thank you, Andrea.
Ms. SAVAGE: Thank you.
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SEABROOK: What great American characters inspire you? Nominate your favorites on our In Character blog. We may put your suggestion on the radio, go to npr.org/incharacter.
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SEABROOK: Our parting words tonight come from a man whose life we celebrate officially tomorrow and whose lessons we would do well to remember everyday.
Martin Luther King Jr. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. And in his Nobel lecture that December he said this: Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.
Makes me think of my daughter. What does it make you think of?
That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News for this week. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a great week.
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