Holden and the Canon: Evaluating the Aesthetic and Classic Status of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’

June 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

J.D Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ has been controversial since its release in 1951. Its focus on crude and sexual subject matter means it was banned in many places, even in some American schools today. Works in the canon, sometimes referred to as ‘the classics’ are broadly defined as works that, because of their innate literary value, are ‘regularly in print’, have ‘a consensus of academics, historians and teachers’ and ‘are studied for school examinations’[1]. ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ has consistently been in the top 100 novels since its publication, but has struggled to gain either a consensus among critics or a reputable academic following. This essay shall explore what has held ‘Catcher’ back from canonical status, despite its broad and long-standing popularity, and whether it is the text or the canon itself that should come under question. [1] Critical Anthology- Section 6

Critics who dismiss ‘Catcher in the Rye’ have generally done so because they consider the writing to be simplistic or unrefined. Canonical texts are usually expected to be ‘aesthetic’ and therefore ‘Elegant, witty, patterned, controlled.’[1] Some critics will particularly highlight that ‘Writers do not simply choose ‘ordinary’ words, like the words we use for conversation.’2 It is perhaps in this light that Catcher falls down, as the narration often uses an informal sociolect with profanity and slang like ‘godamn’, aswell as unsophisticated compound adjectives like ‘pimpy-looking’ creating an unrefined style for the text. On the other hand this is accompanied by sophisticated language devices throughout the novel, which is full of recurrent metaphors and symbolism. One example is the ‘duck pond’ in New York: ‘You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?’. Not only does his repeated questioning about the ducks connote his curious child-like nature, but it also symbolises to Holden what he desires- impermanent change- that the ducks return every Spring. This exemplifies literary devices in the novel which, although simplistic in presentation, demonstrate aesthetic themes woven into the structure, thereby raising the apparent ‘value’ of the writing. [1] Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Students of English Literature by M. Montgomery- Critical Anthology

Conversely, though, we may consider that the literary value of ‘Catcher’ can be found in this ‘simplistic or unrefined’ language too. The use of a vernacular which doesn’t conform to formal or literary English arguably adds value to the text because, through his repeated motifs of ‘phony’, ‘madman’ or ‘godamn’, Holden constructs his unique idiolect. This helps him to assert his own characteristic cult of individualism, which the novel inspired in popular culture too, using language and tone to create imagery for the character himself and thereby reflecting one of the dominant themes in the novel through linguistic self-isolation and individualism. We may therefore deduce that, although there are certainly traditionally aesthetic elements in Salinger’s work, there is, in conflict with literary consensus, value to be found in the ‘unrefined’ elements of Caulfield’s writing too.

Another supposed requirement for ‘classics’ is that they stand the ‘test of time’, largely because their subject matter is not considered ephemeral or commercial but ‘for all time’, notably ‘they are unlikely to be at the same time texts which discuss specific political questions’2. Even before entering the debate however, it is important to recognise that many classics when first produced were indeed commercial, be it Shakespeare or Dickens. ‘Catcher in the Rye’ comes under potential criticism here as ephemeral and possibly politicised as it may be considered too symptomatic of the angsty 1950s period in which it was set and written. To an extent this is true since the novel was written at the beginning of counter-cultural revolt culminating in the 1960s and elements such as Caulfield’s time at a ‘prep school’ and flunking all subjects except creative writing are autobiographical of Salinger, who is known for regarding himself especially as an outsider. Sociologists in the 50s began to fear the ‘homogenisation’ of culture, with Riesman warning of an ‘other-directed’ man[1] who conforms to society. For Holden, the motif ‘phony’ covers everything in society that justifies his isolation from it ‘One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window’- linking his mental sickness with the relevant societal sickness in the 50’s conformist, materialist culture. This implies that perhaps the counter-cultural, isolationist and individualistic aspects of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ are in fact intrinsically linked with issues rooted in the author or period and therefore less significant ‘for all time’. [1] The Catcher in the Rye: The Voice of Alienation by Timothy Aubry, assistant professor of English at Baruch College, The City University of New York-

However, many have seen ‘Catcher in the Rye’ as being invaluable in its subject-matter as it helped establish, through Salinger’s innovative almost anti-bildungsroman form, a new genre in the teenage perspective. It has been said by critics that ‘It is the first novel of the modern teenage years.’ and that ‘There is a strong dialogue between the book and the teenage experience- they are mutually shaping.’[1] Indeed, the angsty tone and unreliable narration help to capture something of the, previously unacknowledged, ‘teen spirit’. Holden is the perfect allegory for holding onto childhood and innocence through the teenage experience- helping create value. One aspect of this is the recurrent mental analepsis concerning his brother Allie: ‘He’s dead now. He got leukemia and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You’d have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was about fifty times as intelligent. He was terrifically intelligent. His teachers were always writing letters to my mother, telling her what a pleasure it was having a boy like Allie in their class.’ Holden was 13 when he died, significantly the start of puberty, thereby helping to construct an allegory in which Holden’s longing for Allie comes to symbolise his longing for childhood. Similarly, the book’s titular extended metaphor in which Holden describes his ideal life as ‘the catcher in the rye’- ‘What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff— I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.’ The use of the pastoral refuge imagery demonstrates Holden’s desire to return to a better time where he stops kids falling off ‘cliff’s into adulthood and experience. Such a theme is seen constantly in the novel, including later in the ‘Natural History Museum’- ‘The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times’- representing his deep longing for things to stay as they were. These demonstrate not only established and moving literary techniques, adding value, but also a central theme of such importance that it helped establish a genre. The teenage experience is a significant aspect of life universally and therefore Catcher not only stands the test of time but also brings something new and necessary to the ‘classics’. [1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8084931.stm – Dr. Graham (Leicester University)

Both the preceding points of genre and language raised issues about what gives ‘value’, about how we define and assign literary worth. Barthes raises this issue in his work, where he explores the idea of ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts[1], each deriving their value from different forms of pleasure. The canon, comprising mostly ‘writerly’ literature is about challenging the reader and producing something artistically beautiful. ‘Readerly’ texts on the other hand provide pleasure to the reader by immersing them in another world or person’s story, the reader may forget that they are in fact reading, and language may not be as complex or patterned. The informal direct address used by Holden, for example, such as ‘I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff’, pulling us into his world and including us in his superior perspective, or the angst-ridden tone mirroring teen’s inner conflicts, have just as much value to a consumer, regardless of canonical ‘aesthetic’. It is therefore worth considering alternative theories of literary value such as Barthes’s when deciding whether ‘Catcher in the Rye’ has a place in the canon, particularly in appreciating both its evident ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ aspects. [1] Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Student of English Literature by M.Montgomery- Critical Anthology

Perhaps one observable failing in ‘Catcher in the Rye’ is that ‘Plot is in short supply.’[1] It’s supposed to form ‘complex patterns or structures’[2], and is arguably an important factor even in establishing ‘readerly’ value as it creates interesting storylines. Often there are narrative gaps in Holden’s storylines, sometimes left unconcluded with a relatively cyclical arc, leaving readers without a sense of resolution or explanation- ‘That’s all I’m going to tell you about. I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I’m supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don’t feel like it.’ It is easy to feel as though nothing of consequence occurred in this novel. Another reading of the text however, is that the narrative is a mental one, as opposed to a more solid material one, in line with its experimental anti-bildungsroman form. Although the text only covers three days of Holden’s life it feels significantly longer due to the lack of distinct chronological markers and even the absence of consistent paragraphing, with some anecdotes rambling on for multiple pages. These however are excellent structural imagery for an inner monologue. The distortion of time and lack of impetus or direction in plot may be addressed by the fact that this reflects Holden himself, who in his depressed and deteriorating mental state lacks all of these things. It does, indeed then, in this psychoanalytical reading ‘form complex patterns and structures, either being echoed by other ideas in the text or reaffirmed in the form of general themes.’ 7 taking us on a journey through the unstable mind. [1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8084931.stm – BBC Magazine Why does Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye still resonate?, created 5/6/05 [2] Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Student of English Literature by M.Montgomery- Critical Anthology

Overall then, an exploration of general literary features such as form, plot and language, demonstrates how ‘Catcher’ fulfils many of the aesthetic ‘conditions’ for literary value through sophisticated devices and complex, consistent themes. This is the case even if the presentation of them is unconventional within the established canon. Interestingly, Holden’s central themes resonate with canonised heroes of American literature like Gatsby or Huckleberry; be it the social insider turned prisoner, the unique idiolect or the Romantic’s legacy of innocence battling experience. The text does however raise questions about how we assign value to literature such as whether politicised subject matter has a place or whether readers’ pleasure is as important as aesthetic worth. It’s worthwhile noting that the canon can be criticised as a group of texts selected by ruling elites, middle classes or older generations of critics and it’s therefore highly reasonable to consider these alternative aspects when discussing value. ‘Catcher in the Rye’ certainly benefits from such a discussion as the dissident narrator, the nonstandard vernacular and the personal form all add value despite all being points of potential criticism too. It is through a combination of conformist and alternative literary value that ‘Catcher in the Rye’ has a place within the canon, perhaps most pertinently through its attempts to not be a ‘classic’.


A-Level English Literature B Critical Anthology by AQA, Cambridge University Press 2015 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8084931.stm – BBC Magazine Why does Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye still resonate?, created 5/6/05 – Study.com Why is Catcher in the Rye a Classic? https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/catcher/context/ – SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Catcher in the Rye.” Context, accessed 20/07/17 http://studentacademichelp.blogspot.com/2009/05/catcher-in-rye-holden-caulfield-and.html – An essay from Academic Help, The Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield and American Protest, created 21/5/09 – The Catcher in the Rye: The Voice of Alienation by Timothy Aubry, assistant professor of English at Baruch College, The City University of New York, The Guilder Lehrman Institute of American History

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