Alice in Wonderland was always a favorite book of mine. I first read it when I was about 13, and was fascinated by the word-play and the situation of the little girl inadvertently experiencing changes in her own body and encountering a bizarre world of creatures giving her conflicting messages.
A familiar literary figure, the child or adolescent looking at the madness that is life as a grownup, was embodied years later in the character of Holden Caulfield. Taken on the surface, one might think of Alice and Holden as cut of different cloth, but we are aware of them both these days with the Tim Burton movie version of Alice in Wonderland and the recent death of J.D. Salinger, author of the ground-breaking The Catcher in the Rye in the 1950's.
The Catcher in the Rye, read as an adult, does not hold up as well as Alice. A friend of mine confessed to re-reading it 30 years after the first time and wondering what all the fuss was about. I can understand that, and I can understand why it leaves 12-year-olds cold too. It is too often assigned as required reading for that age group, which further bolsters my feeling that too often the educational establishment doesn't know what it is doing. The Catcher in the Rye is a book for people in their 20’s, looking back at their adolescence, reflecting on the agony of making big decisions with so little equipment.
In its day Catcher was astounding. Unlike anyone writing at that time, Salinger captured the kind of urban interior monologue a 17-year-old boy might actually use in describing his life. Adults of the 1950’s were shocked at the raw language coming from a well-bred, upperclass boy, but anyone under the age of 30 related to it. A college professor when I was a freshman assigned it to upperclassmen, and, flatteringly seeing me as precocious enough to have a valid reaction, lent me a copy and asked my opinion of the book.
I would say it was almost life-changing to me to read prose like that, and I shared it with friends who agreed. The word around campus was that our prof’s superiors were definitely of two minds about his teaching this book; it was not considered good literature, much less a classic. Be that as it may have, it made that teacher something of a hero to me and my cohorts.
The image of this mixed-up kid hoping he can spend his life rescuing children from falling off a mythical cliff in a mythical field somewhere—based on his own misreading of a song about crossing the Rye river in Scotland—said volumes about the neuroses and missteps of adolescence. He is struggling with his fear of the loss of his own innocence as well as that of his beloved little sister and every child on earth. He stokes his anger as everything seems to turn against his resolve to stay unsullied forever. His mind races from obscenity to obscenity as he confronts an obscene world about him.
In an almost-similar way Alice is the only sane person in a crazy world. When we meet her she is bored, as any child might be bored trying to read a book without any pictures or conversations in it, and follows a white rabbit down his hole, curious about his having a pocket watch as well as a pocket to keep it in. Right away, she is more an active participant in her adventures than Holden, whom we meet when he has been expelled from school and is wandering around New York City in a cross-current of his own conflicting impulses. Alice meets an array of characters, amusing, frightening and mad, but she retains her equilibrium and seems always to be the voice of reason no matter how bizarre her world. Holden, on the other hand, is an exposed nerve, a breakdown looking for a place to happen; and the characters around him only prove what he already feels—that growing up is synonymous with selling out.
Is Catcher in the Rye a classic? Its depiction of the insecurity of having unconventional thoughts in a conventional era certainly ignited a generation and was probably a forerunner of the chaos that was to come in the 1960’s and 70’s. Salinger’s proficiency with slang as a means of expression was ahead of its time, and his style as well as subject matter influenced writers and young people for years to come. It’s passé now, but stands, like Alice in Wonderland, as a time capsule and window to a bygone day, as well as a reflection on the eternal agony of growing up.