This curriculum unit will trace the rites of passage from the 1940’s through the present in literature. My focus will be on
The Catcher in the Rye
although I will concentrate on other novels too;
Summer of 1942
A Hero Ain’t Nothin But a Sandwich.
Supplementary works will be previewed. This unit will be geared for the inner city teenagers I teach.
The parents and grandparents of these students are chronologically younger than we would expect. Obviously for some coming of age came early. I want my students to realize that they are not alone in their growing pains. In fact the benefit and experience of the older generation is a tremendous resource. A key issue is trust. By studying these novels young adults may realize the communication gap between generations is not so great.
Adolescence proves for many youngsters to be a stressful period in life as they attempt to forge an adult identity and relationships with others. Adolescent sexuality tends to be heavily censured by parents at this stage of life, because of the physiological capacity for reproduction. This is especially true of the girls. Standard injunctions that all sex is evil or that all adolescents are sexually irresponsible fail to contribute toward a healthy and responsible sexuality. On the contrary, they are much more likely to contribute feelings of guilt that may remain with the individual for the remainder of her life, Teenagers need to be exposed to both fiction and non-fiction on this universal theme of coming of age.
When I think of adolescence these words come to mind; driver’s license, bar-mitzvah, initiation drinking, puberty, shaving, voice changes, menstruation, and acne. Sometimes it means deciding what you are going to be for the rest of your life. When your parents and teachers no longer structure your time, what do you do? If you are not ready to fill your thoughts with the future how are you going to handle right now? For some it may be a dress rehearsal, a try out before the show hits the road. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but then I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 12-14 Bible p. 179)
Adolescence is a difficult time for the individual. We tend to think of young teenagers as being overly self-conscious, self-critical, and anxious about how others view them. This tends to support Erikson’s view that adolescence may be a time of major changes in the individual’s sense of self. Among the most widely accepted ideas in the behavioral sciences is the theory that adolescence is a period of disturbance for the child’s self-image. Hall (1904) originally characterized the age as one of “storm and stress.” Erikson (1959) views it as a time of identity-crisis, in which the child struggles for a stable sense of self. Psychoanalytic theory postulates that the sexual desires of puberty spark a rising again of oedipal conflicts for the boy and pre-oedipal pressures for the girl. (Blos 1962, Freud, 1958). To establish mature sexual relationships in adulthood, the child must resolve these conflicts during adolescence. In the interim, the physiological changes of puberty and the increase in sexual desire challenge the child’s view of himself in fundamental ways. Both his body and self image radically change.
Sociologists (Davis 1944) traditionally characterize adolescence as a period of physical maturity and social immaturity. Because of the complexity of the present social system, the child reaches physical adulthood before he is capable of functioning well in adult social roles. Adolescence becomes extremely difficult because the new physical capabilities and new social pressures to become independent coincide with many impediments to actual independence, power, and sexual freedom.
The unclear social definitions and expectations cause ambiguities. The need to make major decisions about future adult roles, on the basis of what he is like at present further heightens the adolescent’s self-awareness and self-uncertainty. (Erikson 1959)
Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of
The Catcher in the Rye
has experienced such disturbances.
The Catcher in the Rye
Are there really three generations of ivory snow? My research indicates that the good ole days were not all that good. The great appeal
The Catcher in the Rye
has for young people is due I think, to the fact that it is valid, realistic, representation of the adolescent world. Some adults may object to Holden’s thoughts, language, and activities; but I doubt that modern adolescents are as innocent of these things as those parents and teachers suppose.
The book is about adolescent crisis. A boy runs away from his expensive school because he is an academic failure and finds intolerable the company of so many phoneys. He passes a lost weekend in New York city mostly in phoney hotels, night clubs and theaters.
He avoids going to bed with a prostitute and is beaten up by her pimp, meets some phoney friends, talks to taxi-drivers, wonders where the ducks from Central Park Lake go in winter, secretly visits his kid sister, indulges in constant fantasies and finally falls ill of exhaustion. He tells his story in a naive dialect. The boy, ungifted and isolated as he thinks himself to be is getting his last pre-adult look at the adult world, our world into which he is being irresistibly projected. He cannot stand the adolescent world either; clean, good children turn into pimply shavers with dirty minds. For sex is what alters the goodness of children. Of the girls he knows, one is nice and lovable for her he admits no sexual feelings, though her date with a crumby seducer helps to work him up to this crisis; one is a prostitute operating in a hotel which is a sign of the perverted adult world; and one is an art phoney. Growing up is moving out of crumby phoneyness into perverted phoneyness.
Holden is a rangy sixteen year old who is prematurely gray and has grown too fast. Girls are on his mind. Whenever girls do something pretty, even if they’re ugly or stupid, you fall half in love with them. “Sex is something I really don’t understand too hot. You never know where the hell you are. I keep making up these sex rules for myself, and then I break them right away. Last year I made up a rule that I was going to quit horsing around with girls that, deep down, gave me a pain in the ass. I broke it, though, the same week I made it . . . Sex is something I just don’t understand.”
Salinger sees that all the contradictions, agonies, and exaltations of adolescence stem from the central fact: “that the adolescent has newly gained the physical potentialities for sexual experience but has not learnt to integrate them either within himself or in any consistent relation to the demands of society.”
From this flows everything—the confused idealism of his attitude to Jane Gallagher; the naively unscrupulous calculatingness of his adventures; the wish for experiment and the corresponding fear and revulsion; a general fascination and disgust with the physical—Ackley’s pimples, Stradlater’s toenails; a new horrified awareness of the physical process.
Holden’s anguished confusion about sex gives us the measure of both the depth and complexity of his conflict. Sexual awareness is conspicuously absent from the innocent and sincerely responsive world of children which Holden values. Sex belongs to the adult world which he deeply distrusts. Yet, Holden’s own sex drive is very much alive; it is part of the irresistible thrust toward adulthood. He does not want to deny it; in this respect he wants to be grown up.
The action of the novel is centered around the athlete Stradlater, who is a “very sexy bastard,” and who has borrowed Holden’s jacket and girl. When he returns from the date Holden provokes him into a fight. “Get your dirty stinking moron knees off my chest,” says Caulfield to Stradlater. “You’re a stupid dirty sonuvabitch of a moron.” After the fight he goes next door to Ackley’s room for companionship. That guy had everything wrong with him; sinus trouble, pimples, lousy teeth, halitosis, crumby fingernails. “You had to feel a little sorry for the crazy sonuvabitch.” But he can find no comfort or solace in the room which stinks of dirty socks. “I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden, I almost wished I was dead.”
It is, however, the imminently dangerous quality of sex that is frightening. When Holden asks his roommate if he had sex, “That’s a professional secret, buddy.” When Holden recalls for this “sexy bastard” how he had met Jane and goes on to say that he used to play checkers with her. Stradlater’s contemptuous comment is “Checkers, for Chrissake!” This girl, who had had a “lousy childhood” with a booze hound for a stepfather running “around the goddamn house naked, always kept her kings in the back row.”
The symbolism of this imagery, portraying defense of sexual attack, the central motif of the episode. From the start Holden is convinced he is a coward, afraid of sex, afraid of dying.
Holden is driving himself crazy when he remembers back to the time when Jane began to cry. One of her tears, a big one, plopped right on the checkerboard. Suddenly Holden finds himself comforting her, kissing her all over, except on the lips: “She sort of wouldn’t let me get to her mouth.”
He is still in the dark about what happened between Jane and her step father. So the incestuous matter with Jane is left about as ambiguous as the homosexual matter with a former teacher, Mr. Antolini; but both contribute to the education of young Caulfield. It is an education which by now includes the matters of the transvestite and the water-squirting perverts at the Edmont Hotel, and the matter of Sunny and her finger-flicking friend, Maurice, as well as the matter of a single word, fuck, scrawled everywhere, reducing human relationships to the ridiculous. It is an education, moreover, that makes Holden more determined than ever to be a protector of innocence.
In fact Holden wants to he a catcher in the rye. “Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. 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 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 a catcher in the rye and all. I know, it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
But then again everything else seems crazy too. Love fails him; he is beaten, snubbed, ignored, and insulted, and there comes a point when the reader begins to add it together. The story is suddenly no longer the series of amusing incidents happening to an incisive misfit-it becomes the tragedy of the fall off the cliff into adulthood.
Most significantly, for an adolescent undergoing the torturing growing pains of sex, he sympathizes with the girl’s situation with the ugly daughter of Pencey’s headmaster, with both the ugly girl and the beautiful girl in the nightclub undergoing male treatment from their escorts, with the prostitute Sunny, with the girl whom Luce has enjoyed and now discredits, and especially with Jane Gallagher, the girl whose fear Holden appreciates and whose virtue he fears Stradlater has taken.
The refusal to accept the status quo in the universe marks only adolescents. The young have the clarity and newness of vision, the relentless but two dimensional logic, and the almost unbearable sensitivity that often characterize the saintly and the insane. “A saint as well as a mad man may be an adolescent who has refused to grow up, unable to cover his soul with the calluses necessary for the ordinary life; the crucial difference being that the saint finds a protective armor in religion while the madman’s only protection is flight. The wage wars with the way things are and are martyrs to the commonplace.”
Like Huckleberry Finn, with whom Holden Caulfield is constantly compared, the hero of
The Catcher in the Rye
is usually described as a rebel, either against the materialism and ugliness of our society or against the realities of the adult world. But he does not make a satisfactory rebel because he is not for anything. Some critics have considered Holden cynical, defiant, and blind. The lies, the phoniness, and the hypocrisy Holden turns from are the compromises which innocence is forced by the world to make. He has been called a sad little screwed up neurotic by Geismer, Aldridge considers him a beatnik Peter Pan, not only as a boy who refuses to grow up but a moral idiot. Holden is the classic portrait of the crazy, mixed-up kid, but with this significant difference; there is about him a solid substratum of goodness, genuineness and sensitivity.
Adolescence could be compared to Dicken’s famous quote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present, period. that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Holden like Huck tells his own story and it is in the language of the telling in both books that a great deal of the humor lies. In the nineteenth century; Huck began, “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
but that ain’t no matter.” The twentieth century counterpart, Holden, “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
The quality which makes Huck and Holden brothers is a common hatred of hypocrisy and a search for integrity. Perhaps the central theme of these novels of adolescence is the individual’s search for genuine values. “In the confused rye fields of life the worldly characters seek to catch people, and in revulsion Holden imagines catching all innocent children to protect them from destruction. I know it’s crazy admits Holden who suffers a nervous breakdown at the end.” And similarly Huck ended by exclaiming: “I can’t stand it. I been there before.” In their confusion, these heroes desperately seek truth.
But the ambivalence of adolescence, which runs after experience yet fears it and admires the mixed up end splendid world while still idealizing innocence, merely reflects the similar ambivalence of American society. Holden confronts the larger problems of sex. At the end of the story he must see a psychiatrist and face those problems of growing up which our maturing society must also face.
The Peter Pan Syndrome
has become a best seller in this country. There is a recurring theme in history of the boy who does not want to grow up. It has its beginning when the Scottish author J.M. Barrie who claimed that his immortal character Peter Pan sprang from the antics and personalities of the five young sons of his friends Sylvia and Arthur Davies. In the dedication to
, he wrote: “I made Peter Pan by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks to produce a flame.”
The theme of the boy who would not grow up had its origin in a tragedy in Scotland that occurred when James Barrie was only six years old. Barrie was one of eight children. The second oldest boy, David, was the mother’s favorite. When he died in an ice skating accident in 1867, on the day before his fourteenth birthday, his mother became quite ill. Little James, age six, told jokes, convinced that laughter was a sure cure. The mother lived twenty nine years after David’s death. In the mother’s thoughts David remained her boy forever. When James became a man, David was still the boy of thirteen. While Barrie remained devoted to his mother until the day she died, he was never able to take the place of his brother. Despite enormous success as a writer, Barrie could not compete with David, the boy who would never grow up, the son who would forever remain perfect.
In one of the opening scenes of
Wendy asks Peter his age. He replies, “I don’t know, but I am quite young. Wendy, I ran away the day I was born. It was because I heard father and mother talking about what I was to be when I became a man. I don’t want ever to be a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.”
Holden and Huck too ran away. After Holden was kicked out of his third prep school he visited a former teacher whose advice was this: “Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and sickened by human behavior. Many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn something from them—if you want to. It’s History. It’s Poetry.”
“It may be the kind where at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college. Then again, you may pick up just enough education to hate people who say, ‘It’s a secret between he and I.’ Or you may end up in some business office, throwing paper clips at the nearest stenographer. I just don’t know.”
Holden is more nearly a modern Huck Finn. Both Huck and Holden are in the same lineage of what critic Leslie Fiedler calls the Good Bad Boys of American Literature. Like Huck, Holden longs to be out of civilization and back in innocent nature. Like Huck, speaking superbly authentic dialect of his age and his place, Holden is a runaway from respectability, the possessor of a fierce sense of justice, the arbiter of his own morality. If one fact more than any other links
Catcher in the Rye
to its generation, it is that for Holden—as presumably for his creator—the ultimate condemnation is summed up in the word phony.
Holden has a problem with communication: as a teenager, he simply cannot get through to the adult world which surrounds him; as a sensitive teenager, he cannot even get through to others his own age. The main reason for Holden’s communication difficulty lies in his absolute hatred of the phoniness. And he finds that phoniness, that hypocrisy, not only in the world of his personal contacts but in the world of art as well. He detests phony books, phony music, phony movies and plays. So repulsed is he by the phoniness around him that he despairs of communicating with anybody, he contemplates a retreat within himself. Holden used the word phony forty four times to cover up all manifestations of idioms, hypocrisy, and reasoning that made him want to “puke”.
Holden’s informal, schoolboy vernacular is particularly typical in its vulgarity and obscenity. The word fuck appears four times in the novel. Holden’s swearing is so habitual, so unintentional, so ritualistic that it takes on a quality of innocence. Holden is characterized as a desperate bravado; he is constantly seeking to appear older than he really is. Despite that trait, however, Holden’s profanity does not stem from the same motivation that prompts other adolescents to swear the urge to seem one of the boys. His profanity is so much ingrained by habit into the fabric of his speech that he is wholly unaware of how rough his language is.
“If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck You’ signs in the world. It’s impossible.” That’s the whole trouble. You can’t even find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody ’ll sneak up and write ‘fuck you’ right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say ‘Holder Caulfield’ on it and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say ‘Fuck You.’ I’m positive, in fact.”
Summer of 42
In the summer of 1942 they raided the Coast Guard Station four times. They saw five movies and had nine days of rain. Benjie broke his watch, Osey gave up the harmonica, and in a very special way, Hermie was lost forever.
This American novel is about three unforgettable boys and their last moments of innocence one summer. Beyond their scope World War II was raging 1939-1945. Hermie, the protagonist aged fifteen was desperately in love with a beautiful married lady. And nothing, from the first moment Hermie saw her, and no one had happened to him since, had ever been as frightening and as confusing or could have done more to make him feel more sure, more insecure, more important and less significant. It is in the genre of
The Catcher in the Rye
Hermie was torn that summer between being a boy and a mature young adult. On the one hand he was chastised from time to time for slurping, and his sister remarked twice that he had the manners of a filthy slob, but as long as he kept eating, he had his mother as an ally, and his sister finally left the table, enraged that, for a brother, God had given her Peter Pig.(note the recurring Peter Pan syndrome) On the other hand Oscy tells Hermie, “It’s very mature to feel girls, my brother does it all the time.”
It is called foreplay! Everybody takes off their clothes, and they play foreplay! Before you know it they’re fucking. Oscy was really excited, Benjie was frightened. Hermie was surprised. They found a medical book with actual photographs. “And goddammit, we’re going to get it. The tears rose in Benji’s eyes, something else rose in Hermie’s jeans. Oscy, their leader, would not fail them. Today foreplay, tomorrow the world.”
It was like a third eye in his forehead that saw only sex and, as such, gave him no rest. He lay down with it at night, and he woke up with it in the morning. He left the house with it and was walking down the beach with it. It was taking over his life because it wouldn’t go away.
In the following scene Oscy and Hermie have dates in the movies dutch treat. Oscy is with the sensuous Miriam, and Hermie with the shy Aggie. Benjie went home in tears as did the third girlfriend who was very over weight. Later Hermie—“I held her breast, fantastic, for eleven full minutes. Oscy—Didn’t it feel like an arm? no, it felt like a boob why the hell should it feel like an arm? Because it was an arm, you were squeezing an arm for eleven minutes, you schmuck. You just wanted to ruin my memory of it, you son of a bitch bastard “FUCK YOU!” What do I care if you spend your whole stupid life squeezing arms! just thought you oughta face reality! Especially if you are going to put a clock on it and goin’ for records!”
They laughed because Hermie knew he could forget Aggie just like that. And if in future years, he ever did remember her or recall her to mind, it would be as a deaf-muted, crooked-toothed, acne-skinned, nippleless girl.
Oscy tries to teach Hermie the facts of life but he is a little slow to catch on. After Hermie falls in love with the beautiful married lady, Dorothy, Oscy offers advice. “You kiss that lady a couple of times, excuse yourself politely, and then return with the contents of this package wrapped around your pecker and you’re home. Oscy was shocked that Hermie wanted to buy it from him. “It’s from my brother! It’s a fuckin’ family heirloom! You have to get your own, you stupid shit!”
As it turned out Hermie never did have to borrow or use his new rubbers. His initiation into sex came quite by surprise.
Hermie had just finished making love to a war widow who had helplessly allowed it to happen because she was in no emotional condition to stop it. No matter how he juggled the situation around in his mind, no matter how he twisted it or interpreted it or lied about it, he knew that in the long run, he was going to be worse off—than she. She’d make it in life because she’d one day realize what and how it happened. He’d be in trouble because it was his first time, which meant he’d remember it forever because that’s the way the legend goes. Plus he’d always remember that in a situation of crisis, his true character had come to the fore, revealing him to be more interested in sex than in compassion. He knew that for all time
he would be indelibly stamped as a shit, and a fuck, and a prick. But he also knew it was the summer he lost Hermie forever.
(Please refer to the lesson plans at the end for the analysis for teaching)
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich
Benjie Johnson is thirteen, Black, and well on his way to being hooked on heroine for good. Benjie’s wry humor and courage, his hard surface and vulnerability beneath make it impossible not to care about him. This book confronts a difficult subject and offers no easy solutions. The inner city students I presently teach can relate to much of what Benjie talks about. The Black English used is a variation but a continuation of school boy vernacular which we saw in the previously mentioned novels.
“Now I am thirteen, but when I was a chile, it was hard to be a chile because my block is a tough block and my school is a tough school. I’m not trying to cop out on what I do or don’t do cause man is man and chile is chile, but I ain’t a chile no more. Don’t nobody want to be no chile cause, for some reason, it just hold you back in a lotta ways; unless you be a rich chile like in some movie picture or like on T.V.—where everybody is livin it up and their room is perfect-lookin and their swimmin pool and their block and their house and they also ridin round in one rollin Cads with a tape-deck playin cool music and with air condition goin.”
The block where Benjie lives is no peaceful place. People are getting mugged and robbed regularly. After age three when the relatives hold your hand you are on your own in the poorly lighted hallways of the tenement. “Walkin through dark, stinky hallways can be hard on anybody, man or chile, but a chile can get snatch in the dark and get his behind parts messed up by some weirdo I’m talkie bout them sexuals. Soon’s you get up to leven, twelve and so—they might cool it cause they scared you know where to land a good up punch, dig? I say alla this cause it’s a fact. I don’t like for folks cryin and bein sorry over me, cause I’m a man and if I can’t take it, well, later!”
“Fuck the Society!” Lass thing the society can do is come along and boo-hoo with that sorry for you talk.
Benjie’s friend tries to give him advice, but Benjie resents him thinking he’s got it made and Benjie’s a loser. “It bugged me hard when Jimmy-Lee start layin them jive-ass-heart raps on me. Talkin like he already a social worker.” “Man, he says, straighten up cause you gonna kill yourself. There ain’t no way to be equal and reach somebody. He don’t reach me at all.”
I hate school. I know what my picture is, even feel bad walkin to school, forcin my feet to move where they don’t wanta go. Schoolteachers can be some hard-eyed people, with talkie eyes; they mouth sayin one thing and them eyes be screamin another. Teach will say, “Be seated and open your book to page one nineteen and be prepared to read as I call your name. But them eyes be stonyin down on you, speakin the message: Shits, sit your ass down, open the book, and make a fool outta your dumb self when I start callin on the ones who the poorest readers.”
“Bein a chile is bein a slave, and that’s why I’m glad I ain’t a chile no more. I’m damn sick and tireda everythin. It phony everywhere!” Just like Holden Benjie feels an alienation from society and a dislike of the phoniness.
For the parents and grandparents of these teenagers they may think back to when their dreams began. Through nostalgia they can stroll down memory lane. Once upon a time there was a land of laughing children and confident grownups called America the Beautiful. In rosy retrospect in that simpler country the Hollywood of the stars and the golden voice of radio, innocent comic books, funny papers and the big bands all blared out a message of cockeyed optimism. It was the time of Mickey Mouse watches and Lionel trains, of Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith, of Fibber McGee and Molly, and of the reassuring “Saturday Evening Post” every Thursday. We must look for it now only on late-nite television for it is no more than a dream remembered, an America gone with the wind . . .
Webster has defined nostalgia as a “wistful or excessively sentimental, sometimes abnormal yearning for a return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.”(p. 1003)
Nostalgia is a psychological time machine that transplants adults to the good old days of another era. Once there, they will find that it is a state of mind, oblivious to actual or imagined barriers. For some it is a pleasant stroll through yesterday, a simple, less turbulent past.
The fact is that all times are tough for the people who must live through them, and glow golden only for those who survive them, or simply imagine them. Perhaps nostalgia is offering only a temporary relief from the discomforts of the real world, but it is also offering many Americans and adolescents a glimpse of the nation’s past.
Did the good old days really exist? Why don’t you talk to your folks about it?