We'd have fewer cases of teenagers going postal if CATCHER were used to teach about mental illness. Like John Voss in EMPIRE FALLS, and Andrew Clark in the cult film, BREAKFAST CLUB, Holden Caulfield shines a golden light on the teenager in crisis.
Try and view CATCHER as less about teenage coming-of-age angst and more about a kid struggling against the downward spiral of mental illness. Without professional help he was doomed to submerge and did, ending up in a "rest home."
Holden was barely "holdin' on."
Teenage angst is a gross oversimplification of Holden Caufield's erratic behavior. It's Salinger's masterfully rendered array of extreme symptoms that's largely responsible for the success of the book, but it's too complicated or too sensitive for English teachers to talk about mental illness; so they focus on the simple and obvious.
Such teachers are missing a phenomenal opportunity to reach kids who are in crisis or who know of someone who is.
As an undergraduate in the '60s I could barely get through CATCHER. I didn't care about some crude spoiled preppy kid who couldn't get his act together. In a word, I was clueless. Unguided, a lot of people will react to the book in this way. That's what a teacher is for, to shine a little light now and then.
I accept that Holden is supposed to be a fictional character, but the book is autobiographical, and a careful reading provides valuable insight into the human condition in the tradition of fine literature.
A greater sense of Holden Caufield/JD Salinger can be found in the film FINDING FORESTER, which is often said to be based on Salinger. In a 1953 interview with a high-school newspaper, Salinger said that the novel was "sort of" autobiographical: "My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book ...it was a great relief telling people about it."
In rereading the book last fall I discovered that Holden was suffering from PTSD stemming from the death of his brother and from witnessing the suicide of a schoolmate who bailed out of a dorm window wearing the sweater Holden had loaned him. I researched and listed the symptoms: depression, poor concentration, attention deficit, crying, uncontrollable rage, lack of motivation, self-isolation, sleeplessness, etc.
(I'm intimately familiar with these symptoms because my own PTSD diagnosis stemming from childhood trauma.I get Holden's struggle. I live with that same feeling that I need to save kids from danger. I had to watch boys get horrific beatings in the orphanage where I spent the last nine years of my childhood. It's this compulsion to protect children that drives my own writing.)
Salinger, when writing CATCHER wouldn't have had a clue about PTSD, as it wasn't even in the diagnostic manual (DSM) for psychologists until decades later. He was just writing what he felt, blasting his feelings onto paper and letting the chips fall.
Talent is talent and courage is courage. I give J.D. credit for both.
Still, the story is pretty advanced for the average reader under twenty years of age. In high school, a teacher would need to do a good bit of student preparation. There's too much going on with too little background. For example, the book is sparse in setting description. Someone who hasn't experienced an urban living environment or hasn't lived in a dormitory will have trouble visualizing most of the scenes.
7/20/12: Oddly enough, there's an example in the news just this morning about a shooting by a disturbed you young man, James Holmes, in Colorado at a screening of Batman.
Some of this can be prevented if we teach mental health in schools, and CATCHER IN THE RYE is a golden opportunity to do so.
Causes Monty Heying Supports