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The Godfather of Teenage Angst

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web Salinger

By Marissa Maier

After noted fiction writer J.D. Salinger passed away on Thursday, January 27 at the age of 91, John Jermain Memorial Library’s Martha Potter had a limited selection of work to choose from for a commemorative display. Salinger published only four books over the course of his lifetime: “Catcher in the Rye” in 1951, “Nine Stories” in 1953, “Franny and Zooey” in 1961, and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction,” a collection of two novellas, in 1963. His breadth of published work, though slim, awarded him the reputation as one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century.

Above: A display of Salinger’s work at John Jermain Memorial Library.

Even after Salinger moved to New Hampshire from New York City and became somewhat of a recluse, his writing has stood the test of time. Roughly 65 million copies of “Catcher in the Rye” have been sold worldwide. The book is featured in thousands of high school English curriculum in the U.S. including Pierson, the Ross School and Bridgehampton School.

The novel, depicting protagonist Holden Caulfield’s exploits around Manhattan after being expelled from a prep school, is on the summer reading list for incoming ninth graders at the Ross School. Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton students in eleventh grade read “Catcher in the Rye” as part of their English studies. John Jermain Memorial Library Director Catherine Creedon makes the case that “Catcher in the Rye” remains academically relevant today because it launched the literary genre of young adult fiction, which didn’t take shape until the mid-20th century.

“[Salinger] wrote a coming of age story with such an authentic voice and that is what continues to make it popular,” remarked Creedon. JJML children’s programming director Susann Farrell calls Salinger the “godfather of teenage angst.” Salinger, added Farrell, influenced dozens of popular young adult novelists including Sharon Draper and Jacqueline Woodson.

“As it has obtained classical status, ‘Catcher in the Rye’ has become good furniture for their heads, in that it provides students with a cultural reference in order to view like works,” added Ross English teacher Mark Foard. “How can one watch ‘The Graduate,’ or ‘Risky Business,’ or ‘Igby Goes Down’ without referring back to it? I do use this book early [in the school year] to discuss how to look for meaning in literature.”

Many educators point out young students mainly read Salinger in class and aren’t prone to pick up his work for pleasure reading. Jessica Warne, a Pierson junior, wasn’t introduced to Salinger until this year when her class was assigned “Catcher in the Rye.” In reading the novel, Warne felt the book spoke to the experiences of previous generations.

“I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I don’t think it is necessarily 100 percent accurate of kids today. There wasn’t really a culture then for teenagers,” said Warne, though she conceded the theme of finding oneself is relevant to her classmates.

“We have a lot more venues for adolescents today than in Holden’s time,” noted Pierson English teacher Maria Archer. “Kids back then didn’t have many options of where to go. Poor Holden had to go to a piano bar to find a good time. Channeling adolescent energy appropriately today increases the chance of mental health and proper maturation.”

And though some students find Holden’s experiences antiquated, Farrell believes children who feel like outsiders relish this first-person narrative of a troubled young man. Bridgehampton English teacher Nancy Nagel said she finds the book particularly speaks to students who have trouble communicating with peers and parents.

“I think that whole idea of rite-of-passage, loss of innocence and phoniness is what some young adults can identify with. There are some adolescent problems that never go away,” added Nagel.

For many baby boomers, those who grew up without the Internet or cable television, Salinger’s work still has a special resonance. Creedon fell in love with Salinger’s prose when she was in ninth grade and read the short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

“[The story] takes place on the coast of a beach and it is about someone who commits suicide. It was the first time I read anything that dealt with something that tragic. It was such a new idea that literature could cover this whole range of human emotion and experience,” recalled Creedon. “After that I read everything else that he wrote.”

BookHampton’s general manager Chris Avena noted sales of Salinger’s work has picked up in the week of his death. Avena planned to reread “Nine Stories.” Marsha Mitrowski, the young adult reference librarian at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton, said adults were recently checking out Salinger’s work, not children. She has heard rumors that a movie based on “Catcher in the Rye,” a project Salinger vehemently fought in life, is in the works. A film, said Mitrowski, would help introduce young adults to the story of Holden Caulfield, but she added, “it wouldn’t have the same effect.”