January
29th 2010
American Literary Fiction: No Girls Allowed!

Posted under: American history, art, childhood, class, Gender, weirdness

J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye and a few short stories and novellas, died on Wednesday.  The eulogizing of the author, who was more famous for his Bartleby-like retreat into seclusion and literary non-production in New Hampshire, illustrates a problem that we’ve discussed here before about the gendering of literary fiction. 

Last night, All Things Considered did an extensive two-part obituary for Salinger, in which they interviewed American literature professor Andrew Delbanco to explain Salinger’s importance in American literary history.  Then in a more personal story, “What Salinger Means to Me,” Allan L’Etoile (a teacher at the all-male Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C.), and writers Shalom Auslander, Rick Moody, and Adam Gopnik all praised the unique voice of Catcher protagonist Holden Caufield, and place him alongside Huck Finn and Nick Carraway as a memorable voice in the American literary pantheon.  (Are you sensing a theme here?  For example, Eliza Harris and Ellen Olenska aren’t on that list.  Neither are Hester Prynne nor Daisy Miller, although they were imagined by male writers.)

I guess no women writers or scholars have any opinions whatsoever about Salinger’s work worth considering–not even the writer, Joyce Maynard, who was Salinger’s lover when she was eighteen years old and Salinger was in his 50s.  (NPR mentions her in the service of describing Salinger’s life, and they play a snippet of her reading from her memoir At Home in the World, published in 1998, to emphasize the weird in Salinger’s very weird life, but they didn’t apparently solicit her literary judgment.) 

Here’s my literary judgment:  I liked the book when I read it at the age of 15, but I didn’t think Holden Caufield was a particularly interesting literary voice (although I found him entertaining.)  He reminded me a lot of the privileged, very self-absorbed boys I went to school with, and I was frustrated by his nihilism and his inability to imagine his life beyond age 16.  And the fact that Caufield’s creator carried on an affair with a teenager when he was 53 I’m sure has absolutely nothing to do with what I saw even at the age of 15 as Caufield’s arrested development.  Nothing whatsoever!  We should just revel in that “goddam” unique American literary voice!  (But, of course, my literary judgment doesn’t count.)

Is this d00dly d00dness a common theme in the Salinger obituaries that you’ve seen, heard, or read?  Or is it unique to NPR’s eulogies for Salinger?  (H/t to Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar, for inspiring me to write this.  I’ve been stewing on it since 5 p.m. last night.)

46 Comments »

46 Responses to “American Literary Fiction: No Girls Allowed!”

  1. Dr. Crazy on 29 Jan 2010 at 7:57 am #

    After reading this, I was curious about the actual “significance of Salinger” and so did a quick MLA bibliography search. The fact is, Salinger just isn’t that important, if we look at the citations, in the history of American literature. Most of the articles were in journals that don’t publish full-length articles, and only 7 books that refer to Catcher in the Rye in any substantial way appear to have been published. That’s right, 7.

    In other words, I think that Salinger is an important figure probably because most people in America read CitR in high school, and because of the mystique of his life as a recluse. So I can’t really get fired up about the doodiness of the eulogies because I feel like they just found whoever said yes first to talk about him – let’s note that Delbanco according to his bio on the Columbia site primarily works on early American lit and 19th c. American lit. (Having him would be the equivalent of inviting me on NPR to talk about Jane Austen, but the fact of the matter is, this does illuminate that people just don’t really work on Salinger – or at the very least, the people who do aren’t fancy enough for eulogies on Nat’l NPR.)

    I just can’t get that fired up about this one. Eulogies are typically about emphasizing the contribution of the person who died, and not about literary criticism, as far as I can tell.

  2. HistoryMaven on 29 Jan 2010 at 9:12 am #

    This post pushed me to think about the American fiction I was required to read in high school: Catcher in the Rye (for which we needed our parents’ permission, which only added to its mystique), A Separate Peace, The Lord of the Flies, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Scarlet Letter. Truth be told, I faked my way on the exam about The Lord of the Flies. I got points for saying that the title would better serve an autobiography of Willie Mays (the 1954 World Series over-the-shoulder catch).

    I like Salinger’s short stories more than Catcher in the Rye. That several were originally published in The New Yorker, though, and that Salinger and William Shawn were buddies just reminds me of, if not the Cold War-era writers’ club, then the NYC sensibility about what is good literature. I found the obituaries romanticizing the late 1940s-early 1950s.

    Then again, this year’s National Book Critics Award finalists feature more women than men, and the books nominated are set within environments beyond Manhattan.

    One would think that there is, out there, a gendered reading of Salinger’s works, especially because so many of his characters are adolescents.

  3. Dr. Crazy on 29 Jan 2010 at 9:22 am #

    HistoryMaven – there are readings of Salinger that attend to gender…. I think the fact is, though, that because Salinger is primarily taught in high schools that most of the work on him is confined to YA circles and aimed at high school teachers/ high school teachers in training/ students. Contrast this with the work on the Beats or on people like Mailer, Roth, et. al. (Obviously I’m sure there are exceptions to what I’m outlining here, but these are my impressions.)

    In high school, from what I recall only less than a handful of novels on the syllabi were by women: Ordinary People, The Crystal Cave, The Awakening, Pride and Prejudice. (Yes, one per year.) I read Wide Sargasso Sea for extra credit and The Mill on the Floss for an independent project (note: I thought George Eliot was a man when I got the assignment and was shocked to learn that this was not the case). I’d like to say that things have changed radically, but my sense from my BFF who teaches high school English is that the required novels by her school board still tend to be heavily male (though they do have “optional” books by women that are sometimes added in).

  4. GayProf on 29 Jan 2010 at 9:22 am #

    It seems HistoryMaven and I had a very similar high school reading list. Even with _A Separate Peace’s_ slightly homoerotic undertones, most of those “classic” texts never really spoke to me.

    I also agree with your memory of _Catcher_, HistoriAnn. Even as a teenager, Caufield seemed like a whiny, privileged jerk.

  5. Historiann on 29 Jan 2010 at 9:25 am #

    Dr. Crazy–thanks for looking up Salinger. I had no idea he was so entirely neglected by lit scholars! (You’re right about Delbanco: he was the go-to guy precisely because there really aren’t any Salingerologists.)

    There was a rather adolescent air to the 2 stories I mentioned on NPR last night–including readings of Catcher by a staffer’s unnamed teenage son. In isolation, this wouldn’t be a problem, but the whole treatment of Salinger as a big deal (it was after all the lead story at 3 and 5 p.m., at the beginning of the program) and asking only men to speak to his significance fits nicely into the trends we’ve seen recently in literary fiction–a few exceptions notwithstanding. Boys rule/girls drool!

  6. Notorious Ph.D. on 29 Jan 2010 at 9:55 am #

    No, Gayprof: Holden Caufield was a tool.

    ((giggles))

    Okay, more seriously: I actually really looked forward to reading this book in high school, but when we finally did, I couldn’t see what the fuss was about — it was just this guy, walking around a lot, insulting people in his head, and complaining about everything and everybody.

    If someone could convince me that Salinger wrote this as a deliberate critique of upper-class teenage white male narcissism, a deliberately unlikable narrator, I’d have a bit more respect for the book.

  7. Matt L on 29 Jan 2010 at 10:16 am #

    In High School both _Catcher in the Rye_ and _Franny and Zooey_ were on the required reading list. I think I read the first ten pages of “Catcher” plus the cliffs notes so I could fake it through the exam. My fifteen-year-old classmates were impressed. I was bored.

    But I read Franny and Zooey twice: it was weird and beyond my ken. (The first time I had ever read a novel where most of the action takes place in a bathroom and a living-room. How crazy is that?) I will totally have to go re-read it, because I might understand it now.

    But Holden Caulfield. Meh.

    I love Dr. Krazy’s comment. Its spot on. The fact that nobody at NPR could dig up a Salingerist for a news story, but everyone had to read “Catcher” in High School is interesting. I think there is a great American Studies dissertation & monograph in this. That would also raise the number of books referencing “Catcher” to eight.

  8. Comrade PhysioProf on 29 Jan 2010 at 10:29 am #

    I thought CITR was boring. Maybe that’s because I went to a school just like Holfield’s and the character was already 100% familar.

  9. Dr. Crazy on 29 Jan 2010 at 11:00 am #

    True confession: I really loved Catcher in high school. Is this because it was the only book written by a living author on the syllabus? Is this because I was very whiny and I thought everybody was a fake and phony? Hard to say. But it sure as all get-out beat Billy Budd and Of Mice and Men during my junior year. One more piece of evidence that I like books that other people find boring and irritating :)

  10. Historiann on 29 Jan 2010 at 11:01 am #

    It’s striking how similar our high school reading lists were, given that we all grew up in different parts of the country, and that we attended some very different schools. (I was at a medium-sized public high school in a “good” school district, not a prep school like CPP. Why am I not surprised that you went to a prep school?) The middle-class and elite white male adolescent experience was central to that list–not just Catcher, but A Separate Peace too, and Lord of the Flies. Whereas female adolescence, at least at the end of the twentieth century, was the subject only of “young adult” fiction writers like Judy Blume, who were never on a syllabus that I ever saw or to which I was subjected.

    The only books that I read in high school that featured female main characters were The Scarlet Letter and Main Street. I liked Main Street, but The Scarlet Letter was taught badly (as it is most places) along with a bunch of Puritan sermons and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” instead of alongside Emerson, Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, and the other American Renaissance writers. It’s a nineteenth century novel with both romantic and gothic elements–why do people keep insisting on teaching it as though it says anything at all about seventeenth-century New England?

    Here’s a funny idea: write Hester Prynne’s story in the voice of Holden Caufield. Goddam, what a bunch of phonies there were in Boston in 1650! I mean, Goddam, and all!

  11. Jonquil on 29 Jan 2010 at 11:22 am #

    Thank you. Thank you. I was stewing, too. I do think there was one female scholar’s voice in the analytical part.

    I wound up doing a poll on Dreamwidth about gender and people’s experiences of Salinger. There was a bell curve of responses to Salinger, but a lot of rage in the comments from the naysayers.

  12. mebrett on 29 Jan 2010 at 11:22 am #

    I read Catcher on my own as a teenager, because I’d heard it talked about as this really sensational, amazingly profound book. The whole thing bored me – Holden reminded me of the boys at my school (third high school, private Quaker school) who thought they knew everything.

    Thinking back on my high school reading list, it went all over the place with books like Things Fall Apart, Ellison’s The Invisible Man, The Martian Chronicles, along with the classics, but the only time I read books written by/about women was the project in 10th grade where we picked an author and read 3 or 4 books by him or her and wrote a report (I read Ursula K. LeGuin).

    For comparative purposes: my 10th high school reunion is this spring.

  13. Comrade PhysioProf on 29 Jan 2010 at 11:23 am #

    Why am I not surprised that you went to a prep school?

    Cause I’m a pompous pedantic douchebag?

    Billy Budd was one of my favorite high-school reading assignments. I also really liked that other Melville book about the “I’d prefer not” British dude. What the fuck was that one called?

  14. Tony Grafton on 29 Jan 2010 at 11:34 am #

    I have seen comments by women: Michiko Kakutani on Salinger as a writer in the Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/books/29appraisal.html?ref=books), and University Diaries on “A Perfect Day for Banaafish” on the web (her post is actually on Inside Higher Ed: http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university_diaries). Bookforum has posted an excerpt from Joyce Maynard.

    But yeah, though I loved some of the stories, like CCP I found the world of Catcher in the Rye too close to what I lived in New York and New England private schools to be revelatory. Fascinating though to see the similarity in readings lists. Did anyone else have to read Ring of Bright Water and The Late George Apley, or was that my school’s eccentric notion?

  15. Historiann on 29 Jan 2010 at 11:35 am #

    Bartleby! “Bartleby the Scrivener”–but I think it was a short story, and not a novella. Salinger’s whole life after 1955 or so was a grand, pointless exercise in “I would prefer not to.”

  16. Historiann on 29 Jan 2010 at 11:41 am #

    And, Jonquil: interesting (if unsurprising?) results–thanks for coming over and showing us your work on this already.

    Usually by this point, someone presenting as male has already offered mansplanations for why it’s really unproblematic to consult only male writers and scholars, and how that’s exactly the kind of pointless bean-counting that prevents very intelligent and cosmopolitan readers like himself from taking us silly feminists seriously. Or how it’s totally unseemly for me, a mere woman, to offer a less-than-adulatory opinion about a male writer when his corpse is barely cold.

    (Just search for “John Updike” or “Lawrence Stone” on this blog to get a flava of this.)

  17. Comrade PhysioProf on 29 Jan 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    Lots of the mansplainers are all tuckered out from mansplaining to Zuska how she’s totally ruining feminism and stuff. Give ‘em a chance to restore themselves with a coupla Rolling Rocks.

  18. feMOMhist on 29 Jan 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    I always think of Catcher in the Rye, Breakfast of Champions, On the Road, the Naked Lunch as part and parcel of the same phase of literature.

    You are impressed by them at a certain point in your youth but then they fade in importance. I think the nostalgia factor explains the attachment factor. The works seem so integral to a type of intellectual adolescent rebellion. I have certainly not gone back to re-read any of them and the one time I taught a section of On the Road for a course in 50′s culture, I had to flog myself through it.

    That said I was sort of struck by the popular culture intelligentsia ramifications of Zinn and Salinger dying on the same day.

  19. FrauTech on 29 Jan 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    Agree with people who didn’t like CitR. I knew it as the book that that one murderer guy (?) had on him or what not. So I’m sure we were all psyched and pumped up for it. However I found it boring, main character spoiled and uninspiring, and no real growth for any plot or character. It’s definitely one of the few “must read in high school” books I’d suggest they stop making people read.

    I was glad to be exposed to classic books in high school and enjoyed most of them. Lord of the Flies (ok), Billy Budd (i liked too, but remembered everyone hated), The Awakening (did not like, female middle age crisis is to be my only fem-centric story in HS?), The Plague (liked), Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn (meh), Heart of Darkness (liked), Animal Farm/1984 (ok), Brave New World(yuck), Grapes of Wrath (meh), Great Gatsby(meh), Thin Red Line(liked). I’m also glad my high school made the effort to include at least two more “diverse” books or plays every year; Raisin in the Sun, Things Fall Apart, Black Boy, Joy Luck Club, a few Latino books I can’t remember (apparently not much of an impression). We read Shakespear every year, but no Jane Austen. For the most part, even books I didn’t enjoy reading I’m glad I did because they are so much a part of popular culture. It seems like the IDEA of CitR is more a part of popular culture than anything from the actual book.

  20. cgeye on 29 Jan 2010 at 1:29 pm #

    http://www.theonion.com/content/news/bunch_of_phonies_mourn_j_d

  21. Susan on 29 Jan 2010 at 2:25 pm #

    Thank you, Historiann. I heard this on the way home last night, and got really annoyed. Where are the women? Why is the only teacher a guy who teaches at a private school with motivated kids? etc.

    But, I must be old. I was never assigned Catcher (or Lord of the Flies, Billy Budd, or others listed here. In 11th grade (when we did “American Lit”) we read Scarlet Letter, and James’ Portrait of a Lady, and I think something by Hemingway — Farewell to Arms?; and then we did a report where we were supposed to read three novels by a writer and give a report; I (early overkill) read absolutely every novel Willa Cather wrote for my report. I don’t remember (this is c. 1970) any “ethnic” literature, though. I did TRY to read Catcher, but got bored, and there was no reason to continue.

    Sigh.

  22. Historiann on 29 Jan 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    BwAHAhahahahahaha! The Onion hit it just right. Love it–thanks for the tip, cgeye.

    FeMOMhist and FrauTech–you both made me laugh out loud, too. I think you’re right, FeMOMhist, that there’s a kind of adolescent mindset that Salinger, Vonnegut, and the Beats (latter day Peter Pans, disdainful of Wendys everywhere) all speak to. Perhaps that’s why no one in this thread has written of having revisited Catcher since having read it in grade 10. Perhaps FrauTech is correct–perhaps it should be demoted from a must-read to a don’t-bother. Now that it’s years since anyone tried to ban the book (which I think also has a lot to do with its presence on high school syllabi in the 1960s-1990s), and the famously weird recluse of an author is dead, will this book remain quite so popular? I wonder.

    I thought of an interesting book about female adolescence that might be appropriate for high schoolers: Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. Although I’d prefer that high school students everywhere read The Handmaid’s Tale as a companion to both 1984 and The Scarlet Letter.

  23. Historiann on 29 Jan 2010 at 2:56 pm #

    The Daily Beast–edited by Tina Brown, of course–has posted an excerpt from Joyce Maynard’s memoir that cover her early epistolary relationship with Salinger. For other commentary/coverage, see Tony Grafton’s comment above, which got held up in moderation.

    Susan: my guess is that you were probably too old (and not under the obligation of schoolwork) to get all the way through Catcher, by the time you got around to it!

  24. Historiann on 29 Jan 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    More comedy gold from The Daily Beast, which links to a story from the Rutland Herald about how the residents of Cornish, N.H. conspired to protect Salinger’s privacy. It contains some reminiscences from the kids who grew up in the town:

    To Emily Robbins, Jerry and Colleen Salinger’s house next door was a regular stop when she and her brother Nick were raising money for Cornish Elementary School projects or out trick or treating.

    One year, the couple forgot to buy Halloween treats and instead handed out pencils.

    “Well, this is lame,” Robbins said she and Nick decided, once out of earshot.

    And, here’s a little bit of ick for you on a Friday afternoon:

    “This was exactly the type of party that Holden Caulfield would hate,” said Windsor resident Joyce Burrington Pierce, who, with her girlfriends, struck up a friendship with Salinger in the early 1950s, shortly after Salinger had made Holden famous in “The Catcher in the Rye.”

    Salinger shopped for food in Windsor, where as a young man he would do his banking, pick up his mail, then cross the street to buy The New York Times and stop in at the old Knapp’s Lunch for coffee.

    Pierce was a 19-year-old Windsor High graduate back in the days when Salinger would drive into town in his little Hillman sports car, his pet schnauzer riding in the back.

    Salinger would visit with the Windsor teens, watching their high school football games, attending movies with them and inviting them to his house to listen to Billie Holliday records or play with his Ouija board, recalled Pierce.

    “My father was a bit leery of us spending so much time with him. He’d say, ‘You girls are going to end up in a book,’” Pierce said. “I read all of his stories looking for me.”

    Eeeeewwwww!

  25. Historiann on 29 Jan 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    And speaking of female adolescence in school curricula, some a$$hat of a parent in Virginia has demanded that hir child’s school use a different version of The Diary of Anne Frank because at one point in the complete version, Frank writes briefly of her curiosity about her vagina.

    The offending passage: “There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can’t imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!”

    Meanwhile, Holden continues to schedule an assignation with a prostitute, EVERY TIME the book is assigned. (I know that Catcher has been subject to book bans too, but not because of the prostitute scene, just for the “goddamns” as far as I remember.)

    (Via Corrente, at The Raw Story.)

  26. Rad Readr on 29 Jan 2010 at 8:06 pm #

    After more than 15 years in the American literature racket — albeit not in an exactly traditional way — I have never 1) taught Catcher 2) known anyone who taught it 3) seen a paper about it 4) seen it listed on a conference program. I also don’t remember seeing any journal articles, but maybe I’ve repressed. Leading me to conclude that it’s a children’s book.

  27. JJO on 29 Jan 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    Count me among the Catcher haters. Like many smart, pretentious high school students, I envisioned myself as as something of an iconoclastic nonconformist (of course the reality was that I was following a very predictable pattern of intellectual posturing without actually challenging or risking anything much — I fucking loved school) so I think I probably reacted badly to the idea that I was supposed to like it for its iconoclasm. But I also just thought Holden C. was a pretentious, self-absorbed asshole (so maybe I was projecting!).

    In our IB English classes we read relatively standard stuff, although it was different from the regular Steinbeck and Hemingway-heavy classes: Sophocles, lots of Shakespeare, Fielding (my favorite), Siddhartha, Portrait of the Artist and Dubliners, The Sound and the Fury, Cry the Beloved Country… I honestly don’t recall a single female author.

    Between my junior and senior years, though, I did a Governor’s School humanities program, and Historiann will be happy to know that we did in fact read The Handmaid’s Tale.

  28. FrauTech on 29 Jan 2010 at 8:59 pm #

    Oh yeah the Handmaiden’s Tale, good call Historiann. I read that for a required college writing course, not HS, however. Though, I had problems accepting that as a possible future. Seems to me that in their post-apocalyptic future extremely-patriarchal society that there’s no way sex would be so repressed. More like they’d have all become some kind of crazy polygamist religion instead. Okay, maybe that was my uneducated 17 year old brain making that assessment, but that’s what I thought when I read it.

  29. Indyanna on 29 Jan 2010 at 9:36 pm #

    I went to a prep and/but I never came within a mile of reading this book (that I can remember), although I read almost everything else on History Maven’s list and much of the rest of everything that’s been cited here. So I didn’t quite know what the fuss was about. The guy was famous for being obscure and reclusive, that’s all. I decommissioned and deaccessioned my parent’s house a few years back, though, and in the process, I excavated my mother’s pre-marital WW II-era “Book of the Month Club” library. A fairly vast amount of the fiction she was reading as a post-college working girl was written by women. So maybe there was a print version of the “Rosie the Riveter” phenomenon? Salinger was storming beaches somewhere.

    This interval coincided, ironically–to judge from the NY Times’s almost two full page Salinger obit today–with Salinger’s wait for the _New Yorker_ to actually run his first story. They accepted it in 1941 but it only came out in 1946! [This sounds vaguely like some of the publishing cautionary tales we've heard in early American circles, eh Historiann? :) ] By 1945, JD was “hospitalized for ‘battle fatigue.’” I’m taking some liberties with the chronological context here. Maybe that’s what drove him over the edge.

    I thought Updike’s snark on “Frany and Zoey was fairly fun and predictive: “Saliger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.” But, to give Michiko Kakutani the last word here: “[_Catcher_ is] a novel that still knocks people out, a novel, if you really want to hear about it, that is still cherished, nearly six decades after its publication…”

  30. thefrogprincess on 29 Jan 2010 at 9:43 pm #

    I never read Catcher in the Rye in high school; wasn’t in either the honors or AP curriculum but I can’t speak for the other English courses. Then again, I grew up in a very conservative part of the country, I doubt it would have flown with parents.

    I do think of Catcher very fondly, though. My sophomore year of college, I had a crush on a boy (who only liked me as a friend) and we had dinner one evening close to winter break. Somehow we ended up in the campus bookstore (embarrassing, I know), he revealed a passion for literature and writing (surprising b/c we’d met in a pre-med science course and b/c he was a student athlete), and he decided he was going to buy me a book for Christmas/my birthday. As we scanned the shelves, he pulled out CitR, I said I hadn’t read it, and he insisted that I could go no further in life without reading it so he bought it for me. I read it over break and remember liking it fine enough, wondering a bit what all the fuss was about but still being glad I’d read it, and totally swooning over the fact that a guy’d bought me a book. So yeah, I’m not the most objective on the merits of CitR.

  31. dandelion on 30 Jan 2010 at 1:06 am #

    My daughter’s high school teacher had them read Oates’ Foxfire to balance out the boys story of Catcher. I thought that was a good call.

  32. Paul S. on 30 Jan 2010 at 6:47 am #

    Like so many others, I read CITR in high school. I remember actually kind of liking it, but I never reread it. That’s true of almost every piece of literature that I’ve ever read, though, since I’m mostly a strict non-fiction reader.

    Still, some of the criticism here seems a little peculiar. When a book is told through the eyes of a somewhat aimless teenage white male from a fairly well-off background, it seems kind of strange to complain that the protagonist acts and thinks like a somewhat aimless teenage white male from a fairly well-off background. Not wrong, just kind of beside the point.

  33. Historiann on 30 Jan 2010 at 7:21 am #

    Dandelion–Firefox a good companion book. I was thinking of Oates alongside Atwood as a writer whose books in the 1980s and 1990s focused a great deal on female adolescence.

    Indyanna: I liked your description of your mother’s working-girl, WWII-era premarital BOTM library. That’s the kind of library that some historians and American Studies-types would swoon over, but that has no real value to libraries or archives. It calls to mind the library now stored in a basement in Boulder, that once belonged to Frederick Jackson Turner! (At least it used to be. I think some of it may have been shipped off somewhere–perhaps the Wisconsin Historical Society?)

  34. Comrade PhysioProf on 30 Jan 2010 at 7:57 am #

    Still, some of the criticism here seems a little peculiar. When a book is told through the eyes of a somewhat aimless teenage white male from a fairly well-off background, it seems kind of strange to complain that the protagonist acts and thinks like a somewhat aimless teenage white male from a fairly well-off background. Not wrong, just kind of beside the point.

    Did I miss some revolution in literary theory pursuant to which one of the most major aspects of a novel written as a first-person narrative–the identity and perspective of the narrator–is now immune to criticism or analysis, as if it were no more important than the typeface used to set the fucking book? Oh, and did I also miss some revolution in pedagogical theory pursuant to which the elevation of a book to the canon of the high-school American literature curriculum as a “quintessential coming of age novel” cannot be criticized or analyzed in terms of the scope of the “coming of age” that is being sold as “quintessential”? And, finally, did I miss some revolution in deciding whether one likes a fucking book or not pursuant to which it is “besides the point” if one finds the book boring as all fuck if one of the reasons the book is boring as all fuck is the identity and perspective of the narrator?

    Well fuck me! I guess I gotta pay better attention.

  35. thefrogprincess on 30 Jan 2010 at 8:21 am #

    On the issue of books written by women that made it into high school curricula: we were assigned Willa Cather and Kate Chopin. Some people read Amy Tan but the teacher I had that year didn’t assign it to my class. But I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird, which, to my knowledge, has quite a large presence in high school lit.

  36. Historiann on 30 Jan 2010 at 8:52 am #

    frogprincess: whatever happened to To Kill a Mockingbird? I never read it in H.S., although I think it might have been on a list of optional readings. I wonder if many find the racial attitudes of the “liberal whites” like Atticus Finch embarassing now.

    Over at Dr. Crazy’s, there’s an interesting discussion about literary merit and why it’s sometimes fashionable to diss. a book (or brag about never having read it.) In commenting there, I thought about some of the best books I read in high school and college about female adolescence, and I think Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings are probably two of the best. They’d be great to assign alongside Catcher, because they too recall an adolescence and young adulthood in the 1940s and 1950s.

  37. The Rebel Lettriste on 30 Jan 2010 at 10:06 am #

    This whole thread made me tear up thinking about my AP English teacher, an inveterate feminist. (To wit, she told us that for the standardized reading and analysis exam we had to take was up for debate. “Everybody’s saying that we can’t use a text with a female protagonist, because it’ll be difficult for the boys to relate,” she said. “No mention of what the girls think, for EVERY BOOK WE READ…” I felt a surge of gladness, even as a 17 year old.)

    Anyway, she didn’t assign Salinger, thank god. Instead, we got Morrison, Austen, Bulgakov, Tolstoi, Conrad, Hurston, Shax, Kafka, Chopin, Perkins Gilman, Woolf. Good shit, now that I think back on it.

  38. Paul S. on 30 Jan 2010 at 10:24 am #

    Did I miss …………

    Well fuck me! I guess I gotta pay better attention.

    Glad I could set you straight!

    Seriously, though, the post over at Dr. Crazy’s that Historiann linked to above says it much better than I could have.

  39. Indyanna on 30 Jan 2010 at 10:52 am #

    Umm, I think the “mansplanation” that Historiann invoked yesterday has arrived, over on the Op-Ed page of the NYT this morning, by David Lodge, entitled “The Pre-Postmodernist.” Lots of pithy and prolix quotation, some clever work with parentheses (((( )))), and I guess some hard-hitting analysis, although I’m not in any way a literary critic or scholar…. Check it out.

    There’s a story behind the BOMC book trove I mentioned. As an executor, I dutifully took every book in the house to the auctioneer, although it was my father’s estate, and he wasn’t exactly–or at all–a book guy. They threw them in boxes and before the auction people pawed through them. When the bidding opened people had to bid on whole boxes in order to get the books they actually wanted. The auctioneer said this raises the total proceeds. When they won the bid they took the books they wanted and left the rest in the boxes. The BOMC ones were left on the cutting room floor. I asked the guy if I could take them back home and he said, yeah, sure, “the value’s out of them,” if you don’t take them they go in the dumpster. “Value” is a relative thing, it seems. [See Janice Radway's book on the BOMC and "Middle Class Desire."] My mother would have gone nuts not over this, but that the 1950s Lionel train sets they bought at Sears ignited a bidding war that stopped action all over the house, while the cut glass stuff her grand aunts had bought went for pennies on the vase!

  40. mandor on 30 Jan 2010 at 11:35 am #

    I managed to center my upper level high school english classes around short stories (once I got past the required 9th/10th grade stuff) and it’s only later that I’ve realized how much more diverse my readings were. I’m sure were I to unearth the course syllabi there would still be a lot of white dudes, but it wasn’t only white dudes! Or in the case of the David Leavitt story, it was a gay white dude.

    The Rebel Lettriste: I wish I had your teacher! Instead I recall my 10th grade english teacher (a woman) talking about how it probably wasn’t fair to the boys to make them read Jane Eyre. Never mind the rest of what we read that year. And no wonder my friends and I all latched onto Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Plath in our spare reading time.

  41. Historiann on 30 Jan 2010 at 12:35 pm #

    mandor: interesting point about the non-canonization of some works of literature. Maybe Atwood, Plath, and Bronte retain their allure among some young readers precisely because they’re NOT on many syllabi? I’m glad that I never read Jane Eyre until I was a college Senior, and could appreciate the cleverness of the book and the deviousness of the first-person narration. I think the book would have been wasted on me in high school, when I pronounced a lot of great works of literture “dumb.”

    In many ways, I wonder if the canonization of Catcher was the apotheosis of what a character like Holden Caufield would have wanted. What better way to subvert a subversive novel than to REQUIRE generations of captives of the state to read it? Ha! The “phonies” win again.

    Indyanna: well, the BOTM books had served their purpose, right? They entertained your mother before she was your mother, and they were important enough to her for her to keep all those years. I’ll head over to the NYT and see if I can find that Lodge column you mention.

  42. Indyanna on 30 Jan 2010 at 6:58 pm #

    That’s a shrewd and ironical point about subverting the subversive, Historiann. Herbert Marcuse once described that kind of cultural dynamic as “repressive tolerance,” and the Sixties saw a whole lot of what came to be called “co-optation,” by way of institutions de-fanging the critique of the conformist society by mass-producing it. The Beards’ _Basic History of the United States_ continued to be adopted by business-oriented school boards well up toward the 1950s. That might have had something to do with their own ideological migration, but I don’t know about that.

  43. Dr. Crazy on 31 Jan 2010 at 9:55 pm #

    On a totally non-topic point, Jane Eyre. I read it when I was around 12 or 13, and I loved it. No, I didn’t get more than the plot of “young girl is totally screwed over by life and then ends up having an awesome life, in spite of that pesky crazy first wife up on the third floor.” But it worked for me, because Jane (especially as a rebellious young girl) worked for me. I read it because I basically spent a summer staying at my grandmother’s during my parent’s most volatile divorce time-period, and I got how pissed off Jane was because I was pissed off.

    I now teach Jane Eyre regularly in one of my two gen. ed. courses, which means that many of the students to whom I teach it are 18-19 and/or have never had another college-level lit course. The vast majority of them love it. It’s a “good story” and they *like* Jane. This is whether we’re talking about male students or female. I’m not sure whether all of them get “the cleverness of the book and the deviousness of the first-person narration” but as a novel, they dig it. And most of them are shocked that they do, as they expect that it will be a chore for them at the outset because a) it’s from the 19th century and b) it’s kinda long. I’ll also say that I’ve done a book discussion for senior citizens (men and women) in the community about it, and they loved that. Seriously, I think Jane Eyre is an all-ages, all genders, all ethnicities book and that it’s all about pitching it in the right way given the audience. And it rules. In spite of what Virginia Woolf had to say about it :)

    (But your larger point holds: some books you need to be at the right age or the right place in your life to read and to “get.” I’m not disputing that larger point, just saying that having been introduced to JE as a pre-teen, having introduced it to late-teens, and having led a discussion of it for oldsters, I’m not sure that this is a designation that applies to this book.)

  44. Cattyinqueens on 02 Feb 2010 at 7:52 am #

    I liked Catcher in the Rye, like Dr. Crazy…I thought it was refreshing after some other tiresome things we’d been reading (when I was in high school, I was all “PURITANS: DO NOT WANT!!). I grew up in suburbs outside of a big city Ohio, so I found the world of that novel strange and interesting. Not fascinating, but interesting. So I think what I liked had something to do with the voice–yeah, I’ll admit that I liked all the slang…by the 80s, it seemed really quaint anyway–and the fact that it presented something utterly different in terms of its setting. I think I only had known YA girl’s book settings, England, and New England as places where books were set, and I really didn’t know anything about other places.

    I’m also with Dr. Crazy (and we are in the same field, in a manner of speaking) on the fact that literary scholarship doesn’t often focus on the books people read in high school. At least I don’t see a lot of people doing that kind of work. I guess Updike might be an exception, though I’m not an Americanist and am too lazy to look at the MLA bibliography to see if people who have phds actually give a $#!7 about him. I like Matt L.’s idea about a dissertation in American Studies that looks at high school board book choices!

    So many books in High school just suck…when acutally, they are quite good when you are grown up. Great Expectations is one of my favorite novels now, but I hated it–and Estella–so much as a high school student.

  45. anonymous reader on 08 Apr 2011 at 7:27 am #

    You guys are so freaking pretentious I can hardly believe it. Salinger wrote beautifully. His works have moved me to laughter and tears–they did when I was fifteen and they still do today. Try picking up Catcher again, or another one of his stories or books, and really engage with it, before slamming him for this or that vaguely-remembered detail or line from Catcher, or accusing him of lacking literary merit because the book has fallen off a high school curriculum.

  46. Historiann on 08 Apr 2011 at 7:54 am #

    Good for you! Each to her own.

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