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The Perennial Outsider and the Problem with Bashing White Kids

As critical as I get about depictions of race, class, and gender in media, I have a real problem with the thrust of this article.  While I think the author is trying to be inclusive in his vision of the need for non-White heroes (and I agree with him on this point), I think bashing Holden is the wrong approach. Let’s look at two specific passages from the article’s beginning and ending:

Teachers and writers who venerate Catcher have to ask themselves: How relevant is Holden in a world where he is an actual minority?

And

As for the coming minority represented by dying Holden, whose popularity among teens has waned in recent years, the prize is out there. The first writer who accurately describes what it is like to be the only white boy in the room in 21st-Century America can redefine the White Outsider and make him relevant again.

So, to make a long story short, as a teacher, I did ask myself if Holden was relevant for my class of all black and Latino youth. I did this seven years ago during my first year as a teacher. At that time, I specifically felt that the whiny voice of a rich, white east-coast male would be completely alien to my students. It would be patronizing to force them to spend their time with such a literary character. I said this to several of my teaching colleagues.

But what I forgot was that Holden is the apotheosis of being a teenager and growing up. I’ve had few texts that have quite the near-universal positive response as Catcher gets in my 11th grade classroom.

While I ask students to think about the critical nature of the text and its politics of representation, I also recognize that students need to look at the world from myriad viewpoints – especially when those of privileged folks like Holden end up looking a whole lot like their own. Each time I teach this book (and it’s been taught to every 11th grade class I’ve taught at this point), I have students ask to buy a copy when they are finished. I have students each year admit it’s the first book they’ve finished reading. Ever. I have impassioned and emotional reflections from students that discuss their fears, uncertainties, and desires about growing up. The fact that Holden is white or male doesn’t get in the way of this pathos or this ability of students to engage meaningfully with an aging text.

Ultimately, I think there is a danger in taking an effective and proven piece of literature like The Catcher In The Rye and allowing it to function as an effigy to burn in tribute to large and significant questions about racial diversity, representation, and media. These are important questions, but the approach is misguided and uninformed. And isn’t this kind of writing specifically what would lead to popularity waning? Is a text’s popularity tied to its relevance?

{ 2 } Comments

  1. M. Saldivar Galindo | July 30, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Everytime I have read Catcher with teenagers, race NEVER has come up. EVERY class has connected with the teenage angst and “fear” of growing up, though. If art (or many other created forms of communication for that matter) needs race to make it work or not it ISN’T always art (or true communication). It is a crutch to create fake emotion. I think The Catcher in the Rye is true art and Holden an America icon. I have had many a Holden in my classes over the years. Class, privilege, dysfunction and being European American doesn’t seem to have a monopoly on being a teenager.

  2. Martha | July 30, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    I never had the benefit of reading The Catcher in the Rye while in high school; I wish I had. It is one of those books that deals with the trials and somewhat desolation that comes with growing up in a cynical world. Every teenager, pre-adult, adult, heck- senior citizen can relate to Holden regardless of race. My high school English teacher “told” his students about the book; he advised us to “read it, when you get the chance,” so I did. Holden’s character connects with anyone (or everyone) whose essence cries with confusion about life; again, independent of race and/or affluence. So yes, “bashing” Holden’s character is the wrong approach. Holden will always be relevant to everyone, especially to teenage students: White, Latino, African-American, Hmong, Japanese, Armenian, any teenager/pre-adult.

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