Wednesday, March 4

Grow Up, Young Man!

Maybe we should read the classics more often.

Book group last night. Six women. Five questions of "Why is this a Classic?" and "Why do we have teens read this?" (One woman arrived late. But she wasn't asking those questions anyway.)

Most said they didn't really understand the book until they realized how depressed Holden was. Another woman brought up bipolar as I considered, but really, I don't think we can say bipolar to be exact, but Holden is seriously depressed and having a manic episode. Very depressed, very out of control. So the ending is bleak because, given the time and culture, there isn't much hope of him getting proper treatment. Someone mentioned the self-medication with all that alcohol. Without proper treatment -- that's going to come right back.

So why do we have high school kids read this? One woman -- the one who brought up the bipolar and self-medicating -- said that she had read it as a young teen and thought then it was an adventure story. Hmmm. Just like Huck Finn is an adventure story. There's a thought. When the American Character group discussed Huck Finn recently, many were struck by how challenging it would be for teens. That the themes of race and the characterization of Jim were so brutal and needed perspective. Many were also struck by how awful Tom behaved. Tom in popular culture is not such an awful bully and brute; he's a fun kid who likes adventure! I don't believe in censoring books to kids, but I have often gotten uncomfortable when kids are reading books as adventure stories but missing --- on the surface --- the book's darker themes. Are they absorbing themes without consciously evaluating them? Think Jane Eyre as a romance, even though if today our BFF were involved with a Rochester, we ought to be very worried for her.

We had a lively discussion. One woman had researched themes on the internet and another woman bought the Spark Notes. Wow, often we discuss a book for all of ten minutes! These women were serious last night, they wanted to understand, to think! So a theme that resonated the most was that Holden really does not want to grow up. His ambivalence about sex, his issues with "applying himself" and on and on. Sure, this would resonate with teens, this does make for legitimate reason for teens to read it. Teens are ambivalent about growing up. Independence comes at a cost. Holden seems to have had a decently affluent childhood, but then his younger brother died and he gets sent away --- as all the boys of his culture are --- to boarding school, a brutal existence with no adult protectors. When he was young, no one protected him. Now all he can think of is to protect children. (Hmm, Ender's Game)

Is it all about sex? Sparknotes would have us believe that. In a way, probably. Everything is about sex. Holden is immature in some ways, but actually seems pretty mature in other ways, in conflicting feelings about wanting sex, but with whom? Sex with someone you like --- but do girls want it? How do you know when a girl says no because they mean it or because they want it but want to be able to deny that later? Or sex with someone you don't like? That's easier, but harder. He sees his peers following this route without compunction --- just one more way in which everyone is a phoney.

I get that he wants to save kids. I get that he wants to keep them from falling off the cliff. The most vivid scene I remembered from my reading as a teen (the only scene I remembered) was him trying to erase the "Fuck You" grafiti from his sister's school. I took it on the surface, just protecting kids. But big themes go further, he wants to protect kids' sexual innocence. Is it just about sex? (ah, the joys of high school. the one woman who said they read it for high school said they never mentioned sex.)

Well, he does take those two young boys to the mummy exhibit, even though he knows it will scare them. And maybe this explains the carousel pony on the cover of my copy. When Phoebe is on the carousel he comments about how kids will attempt to get the brass ring. How it is dangerous for them to attempt this but how we just have to let them do it anyway. Then he goes home and gets help.

I am struck by how yesterday I was stuck in the depression angle. Then discussing the book, we started with depression but were able to move on and appreciate many different aspects of the book and Holden. While acknowledging the depression, we were able to view Holden's journey apart from it. Unlike the protagonist of many children's and YA novels, Holden has two parents. Two relatively normal parents. So for his journey to make sense, it comes with a different cost. I just wish I didn't get the feeling that the book says that growing up requires mental illness. Or maybe I just wish that idea didn't resonate with me so much.

America is still a pretty young nation. Are we still wrestling with growing up? With sexual maturity? Does a bear shit in the woods? This book then seems awfully prescient, given how the 50s and 60s played out.

1 comment:

Thursday's Child said...

I think you're right-on when you say that the deeper themes in our classic works are often missed. Some students realize that, so they go looking for answers. You've got to make sure the answers they're finding are quality, though. I've been pretty happy with, personally. My students have used it to gain some greater understanding and it really helps fuel class discussions.

Check out their section on The Catcher in the Rye.