Holden Caulfield vs. Everyone

holden1When J.D. Salinger gave readers Holden Caulfield, he also gave the literary community a potentially frustrating yet compelling figure: A mode of comparison to hold against virtually all coming-of-age teenagers in the decades to come.

Two books recently crossed my path – The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the story of a lesbian teenager being raised by evangelicals in the Midwest; and Perks of Being a Wallflower, the bestselling novel-turned-movie about a young, tortured soul named Charlie. The blurb on Cameron Post compared the heroine to a female Holden Caulfield. As for Perks—well, it would be difficult to read the novel and not think of Catcher in the Rye. The two male protagonists share so many similarities that I found my mind wandering off on Holden while I was on a journey with Charlie. (For the record: Both books are amazing).

Another writer and I recently discussed the impact of Holden Caulfield on his successors. We had differing thoughts on the relationship between Holden and Charlie, but agreed that there was a lot of room to compare Perks and Catcher in the Rye. Both boys have removed sentimentality and repressed anger, and both struggle with the death of someone close to them. Charlie is sweeter, Holden is edgier, but the comparisons are clear.

I haven’t yet finished Cameron Post (another great book, btw), but I fail to see a clear lineage between Cameron and Holden. The only similarity, it seems, is that they are both teenagers trying to find themselves. But that’s true for any coming-of-age story. Hence why they’re called “coming of age.”

Which makes me wonder: Are all coming-of-agers destined to be compared to Holden Caulfield? If so, is that fair?

Things that make you go hmm.

Another thing to make you go hmm: This article on how views of Holden Caulfield have changed over the years.

[Illustration of Holden courtesy Flickr Creative Commons, user 50 Watts.]

0 Replies to “Holden Caulfield vs. Everyone”

  1. I wonder if these days the reverse is true: that Holden Caulfield is doomed to be compared to all coming-of-agers. By the time I got around to Catcher in the Rye, the nature of Holden had become so much a part of our cultural consciousness that the character felt cliché — even though he invented the cliché — and I found myself immensely frustrated by the novel. It’s a beautiful and important book, but I feel like it’s been tainted by its own success so that it’s just a distant shadow of everything that has come after it in imitation. Which is sad. But I have to say, quite shortly after finishing Catcher, I picked up a YA novel written as a modern homage to Catcher, Frank Portman’s King Dork, and I enjoyed King Dork much more than I enjoyed Catcher.

    1. That is such an interesting point re: Holden becoming a caricature of himself, even though the caricature exists because of him. It’s so interesting when that phenomenon happens.

      It’s funny, I never really considered King Dork to be comparable (although I very much liked the book). It’s as if every snarky teenager has to be another Holden (or vice versa), which is just not the case.

      I read Catcher in the Rye for the first time in my early 20s and loved it immediately; that being said, I approached it without any real expectations. Actually, I expected that I wouldn’t like it, since I’d been exposed to so many “required readings” that bored me to death. Expecting NOT to like it probably allowed me to appreciate it. If that makes sense!

      1. Oh, I do the same thing! Required readings bore me to tears, even with books/authors I love, but resisting a book and discovering it’s not half bad makes me like the book more than I probably would have otherwise! I think that was also a factor in my disliking Catcher — I knew it was this great cultural icon and that I was supposed to love it, so it wound up underwhelming me. That, and I came to Catcher too old, I think. It feels like a book you outgrow (or ought to outgrow?), and since I was a cranky old man by the time I finally picked it up, I couldn’t connect to Holden at all. He’s just a selfish, self-deluding little prick of a teenager — exactly the sort of teenager I was! :)

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