Professor: Salinger novel reveals generation gap

The death of the creator of iconic teenager Holden Caulfield may have a greater effect on faculty than on students, a university professor said.

J.D. Salinger, renowned American author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” died Thursday at the age of 91. His death revealed a distinct generation gap between modern young adults and their World War II predecessors.

David Vanderwerken, an English professor, said the generation depicted in the novel’s postwar setting was more invested in social issues than the modern generation is.

“I don’t see the kind of social commitment to that kind of social change (today),” Vanderwerken said. “Coming out of World War II and having victory over Fascism made Holden more socially conscious.”

Vanderwerken called Salinger “the last of the old crowd of Jewish writers.” He said he was particularly impressed by “The Catcher in the Rye”.

“I was pretty much blown away by it because of the types of things (Holden) was experiencing in the 1940s and early 1950s,” Vanderwerken said. “The whole sense of imagination was not just stifled, but pretty much discouraged by the school system.”

Popular literature of Salinger’s time dealt with different issues than the popular literature of today, Vanderwerken said. Much like Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” resonates with youth of today, “The Catcher in the Rye” related to the experiences of the post-World War II youth, he said.

Ammie Harrison, art and humanities librarian at the Mary Couts Burnett Library, said Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” changed her perspective on many social issues.

“I think what’s important is that we do have his literature,” Harrison said. “He does fit nicely in the tradition of the literary style, especially when you come to writings during periods where such dramatic changes were occurring.”

The novelist’s writings came at a time when society was trying to establish formality, Harrison said.

“There’s a sense of modern-ness to him, but there’s also this sort of underbelly of America,” Harrison said. “People were trying to socially refine and restructure things so rigidly that they attacked the structure that people were trying to make normal.”

Harrison said the manner by which Salinger defined masculinity was unconventional, particularly in the case of Caulfield.

“(Salinger’s) male characters are very interesting because a lot of times male characters are two-dimensional,” Harrison said. “They’re either extremely, extremely masculine or they’re dandies, or they’re completely feminized.”

Caulfield fit neither mold, she said.
Salinger’s works also played a role in revealing the internal flaws to which people fall victim, Harrison said.

“It’s kind of like (people like Holden are) the innards of everybody else,” she said. “People can point at them and say, ‘You’re the problem with society,’ but the problem of society is within (the people pointing).”

His writing style also took on multiple genres, Harrison said. For instance, she said Salinger’s writing was in between modern and post-modern literature, but did not present a relativistic or nihilistic perspective.

“Modernist literature can be plain,” Harrison said. “It can be wonderful, but it can be plain.”

Michael Scott Wilson, a senior political science major, said he was able to relate to Salinger’s characters.

“The way you were able to become immersed in his character, you were almost able to become the psychoanalyst yourself,” he said.

Wilson said he was drawn to “The Catcher in the Rye” because it was in stark contrast to his modern-day experiences.

“I enjoyed it just because (Caulfield) was such a different character from how I really am,” Wilson said. “It was a chance to see a different lifestyle in a completely different setting from how I’ve grown up and was raised.”

Wilson said Caulfield’s personality in “The Catcher in the Rye” had an effect on his own outlook on life.

“At least for a while, it did make me more cynical,” Wilson said. “It’s a very cynical piece, and it’s so powerfully written that it does kind of affect your life for a while.”

Salinger Stats

According to records from the Fort Worth Public Library , “The Catcher in the Rye” has been checked out 3,879 times in the past five years.

According to The Associated Press, more than 60 million copies have been sold worldwide.