Salinger’s Holden vs Harry of Hogwarts

There has been a lot of fresh talk in the news about the law suit filed by J.D. Salinger’s lawyers concerning a new book entitled, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, a take off (or rip-off) of The Catcher in the Rye. 60 Years Later is a novel written by a young Swedish writer styling himself J.D. California.

In The New  York Times on Sunday, June 21, 2009, there was a short piece in the Ideas & Trends page on how today’s young readers see the famous Holden Caulfield as a “whining preppy, not as a virtuous outcast” while Harry Potter is a nerd conqueror who “wins out over a smirking malcontent.”  Teenagers today would rather read about Harry than Holden.

First off, in terms of literature there is no connection between Harry Potter of Hogwarts and Holden Caulfield of Pencey Prep. JK Rowling’s books are for children (and those who think like children) and wish to escape into fantasy land. Catcher is a book that features an alienated teenager, written for adults. It is a serious book written by a serious writer.

Catcher was also a book that caught the mood and the time of teenagers, whether they go to prep schools or not. It is a book that matters, and has mattered for generations of readers. Rowling doesn’t matter, like romance writer Nora Roberts doesn’t matter, though both novelists have sold more books than J.D. Salinger ever will. Still, Catcher sells all of these years later about 100,000 paperback copies a year. Sold, I’m sure, because high school teachers influenced by this book when they were young want the next generaton to know what real writing is all about.

Today’s kids, according to the Times article, aren’t buying this line of thinking. Teachers across the country sing the same sad song. “Holden Caulfield is supposed to be this paradigmatic teenager we can all relate to, but we don’t really speak t his way or talk about these things,” says Ariel Levenson, and English teacher at the Dalton School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Out in Winnetka, Illinois, Julie Johnson, who has taught Salinger for three decades at New Trier High School, says, “Holden’s passivity is especially galling and perplexing to many present-day students.”

Great writing has seasons. I remember in the late ’60s you couldn’t find a copy of Fitzgerld’s The Great Gatsby and then Zelda by Nancy Milford was published and suddenly everyone was reading Gatsby again. And have been reading it ever since.

Faulkner wasn’t in print in 1946 when Malcolm Cowley brought out The Portable Faulkner and introduced Faulkner to a new generation of readers, as well as the academic world that has kept his writing alive all these years.

Catcher was published in 1951. I still have my high school copy published by Signet in  paperback. It sold back then for $.50 and had this cover line on the bright red jacket: This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart–but you will never forget it.

I never have.

4 Comments

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  • Nice work, Mr. Coyne.
    Although also in love with Holden’s tale, I never thought it as a disenchantment with contemporary mores, but moreover a treatise/testiment of one boy’s dealing with an unimagineable sorrow.
    My own book club found Holden pathetic, in need of a little woodshed readjustment. I thought his tale was more about a passing mental illness. After all, he finally weeps with abandon watching kid sister ride a merry-go-round in the rain – something beautiful, and very much alive.
    Back to your Harry Potter comparison – again, nice work! Few subjects are more worthy of literary merit than the journey within.

  • John, ALL writing has seasons and that is the best point in your piece. That Salinger no longer speaks to young people should not be a surprise, maybe not even worth a story n the NYTimes. How many teens read Sir Walter Scott? Few, and we do not expect that of them. Reading–and writing–fashions change. Thank God. No doubt people will continue to read Salinger, if only to understand the 1950s.

    Dismissing Rowling with a comparison to Nora Roberts is unfair, even nasty. People of good will can argue about Rowling’s place in literature. (The recent New Yorker piece took care of Roberts.) Rowling’s major problem seems to be that she sells too many books and is, like, say, Walter Scott, read largely by younger people. I say bless her on both counts. She is getting a whole generation of young people reading 1000 page books. And her tales prod the imagination; they provide, to appropriate Larry K’s image, a journey within. Brava, JK. And Bravo to JD. What’s wrong with admiring them both?

    PS, hey, John, what do you offer me for my first editions of “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”?

  • Good points, all, Barry. Especially being ‘nasty’ as I recall how TIME Magazine would go after my good friend Stephen King….now even the New Yorker publishes his writings!

    You are right about every writer having her or his season…let’s not mention it to Shakespeare, however.

    I still am not a fan of Rowling or Roberts. I read the New Yorker piece. I do agree that Rowling is a much better writer. I am not sure, however, that these tales of hers will lead to developing a tribe of readers. We’ll see. I think they have already dropped Harry for gameboys.

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