If you've been to high school in the US in the past 50 years, then you know his book. J.D. Salinger was not as prolific as many authors, but few could even dream of being as influential. Today, Salinger's son announced that, after years of life in seclusion, his father, author of the 1951 classic "The Catcher in the Rye," died yesterday at his home in Cornish, N.H. Salinger was 91.
After "Catcher in the Rye," Salinger went on to publish a handful of additional works, acclaimed by critics and fans alike – "Nine Stories" (1953), "Franny and Zooey" (1961) and "Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters" (1963). But nothing else would capture the world's attention to quite the extent of "The Catcher in the Rye," with its alienated, disillusioned, prep school dropout narrator, Holden Caulfield.
An early obituary of Salinger credits "The Catcher in the Rye" with long- and wide-ranging impact. "Novels from Evan Hunter's 'The Blackboard Jungle' to Curtis Sittenfeld's 'Prep,' movies from 'Rebel Without a Cause' to 'The Breakfast Club,' and countless rock 'n' roll songs echoed Salinger's message of kids under siege," writes Hillel Italie. "One of the great anti-heroes of the 1960s, Benjamin Braddock of 'The Graduate,' was but a blander version of Salinger's narrator."
For some decades now, "Catcher" has become standard fare in most US high schools. For at least two generations of us, reading the book is one of the indelible memories of 10th-grade English.
But in recent years, there have been debates over the book's continuing merit. While some young readers find Holden's struggles with the "phonies" of the adult world as fresh as ever, others say they cannot relate, and some teachers have questioned the value of insisting that today's kids need to interact with a fictive character rooted in the Manhattan of the 1950s.
At only six years younger than Holden, I am perhaps the wrong age to enter into such a debate. But I will share one memory.
About a decade ago, I was tutoring a New York City school kid who was failing English. Gary was certainly bright enough, but he hated to read. He despised fiction in particular, he told me, and could not bring himself to finish a single book assigned in English class. I met him just as he was encountering "The Catcher in the Rye."
To encourage Gary and keep him company, I bought a copy of my own and re-read the book for the first time in about 30 years. I wondered how it would read as an adult. To my surprise, I felt its poignant bite all over again. I wondered, however, what Gary would think.
At our next tutoring session, for the first time, he was sitting straight up at his desk. "I didn't know people wrote books like this," he said. In part, he meant the language – still surprising in a school book after 50 years. But on another level, he meant something more. "It talks about things that people really think about," he said.
By the time we met again, Gary had read more than the required number of pages and "Catcher" went on to become the first novel he ever finished. Later, his in-class essay on Holden's sense of alienation won him an A. By the time we hit the next novel – Stephen Crane's "Maggie: Girl of the Streets" – Gary had a brand-new confidence. He didn't like "Maggie" nearly as well, but he'd gotten the idea of reading.
He finished English that year with a B.
Gary's experience, of course, is just one story. But I can't help wondering how many times it was repeated over the course of half a century.