So now someone wants to remove J.D. Salinger’s great novel Catcher in the Rye from the county high schools because of its objectionable language. Removal would be a mistake.
Using bad language or sexual allusions as an excuse I could remove many great works from the schools. Some examples from Shakespeare: Othello, “A black ram is tupping your white ewe;” or Macbeth about strong drink, “It provokes the desire but takes away the performance.” Other examples from Shakespeare include the bawdy repartee that begins Romeo and Juliet or the earthy speech by Juliet’s nurse concerning her late husband.
Then we have Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Heaven forbid any student should read “The Miller’s Tale.” Also, the Bible never shrinks from discussing sex. Because she thinks she can never have children, Abraham’s wife Sarah has him lie with Hagar so he can produce an heir and give God a nudge towards making Abraham the father of nations. As Bible readers know Abraham and Hagar beget Ishmael who doesn’t turn out well. Then we have King David, who, after watching the beautiful Bathsheba bathe, sends her husband Uriah off to war to be killed so David can have her for his own. And his interest in her is obviously not her intellect (although she is pretty smart).
And on and on. Hemingway’s Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises has suffered a grievous war wound that has made him impotent. Better pull that book from the shelf. Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” has abortion as its central theme without ever mentioning it by name. Then there’s Hawthorne’s classic Scarlet Letter, read for years in high school American literature courses. That book gets most of its mileage from the adulterous acts of Hester Prynne and Preacher Arthur Dimmesdale.
But what about Catcher in the Rye? I first read the novel in 1953 or 1954, within a couple of years its publication. Seventeen years old at the time, I was very moved by the plight of the novel’s central character Holden Caulfield. I felt as separated from the larger society as young Holden.
Some describe the novel as the story of teen “rebellion and angst,” but that interpretation limits the book’s scope. More significantly, Catcher in the Rye illustrates the alienation and separation of youth from adult society that began with industrialization and mass education and has accelerated with each generation until today, where adolescent young people live in a world completely apart from adult influence, taking their cues about morality and right conduct not from legitimate adult authority figures but from each other (or from the worst role models in popular culture).
Even when I was a teen many years ago I wondered what adults were all about, especially the ones who constantly gave me advice, which reminds me of Dustin Hoffman in a scene from The Graduate, where one of the men at his parents’ cocktail party takes Benjamin aside and says, “Ben, I want you to remember just one thing. Plastics! Promise me you’ll remember that.” Adults used to say things like that to me all the time, as if they had discovered the Holy Grail. The father of one of my good friends, very much under the influence one evening, lectured me to almost boring unconsciousness about “learning to play the percentages.” Huh?
Another thing about Catcher and bad language: Holden sees an obscene word written in a public place (a library or museum, I can’t remember) and is horrified that his little sister Phoebe, whom he lovingly calls “Old Phoebe,” might see it. While Holden knows the bad words, as all of us do, he wants to protect Old Phoebe from their ugliness. Salinger didn’t put bad words in Catcher to make us snicker like Beavis but to show us the world through the eyes of a lonely adolescent.
Which brings us to this question: how should we feel about profane and obscene language or lewd and lascivious acts when they appear in literature? Like many things it depends upon the context. Unfortunately today, and here I have some sympathy for the man who wants to ban Catcher, we live in a society where popular culture has become an open sewer and where public virtues like modesty and proper speech are denigrated. But this is different from what appears in great literature. For example, today’s popular culture – films, television, and music – is saturated with gratuitous nudity, obscenity, and profane and obscene language, most which does nothing to advance a theme or a story. It is put there only to titillate.
Great literature, on the other hand, and Catcher in the Rye is a good example, uses the coarse and obscene sparingly to explain the world by setting scenes and advancing stories and ideas. It gives us a real world so that we may deepen our understanding. That’s a vital difference, and we should educate children to see differences. Remember, truly educated people can make distinctions.
Teach the book. Show the differences. Don’t ban Catcher in the Rye.