J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author who died this week at age 91, was, of course, the author of every teenager’s favorite novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Published in 1951, the story of Holden Caulfield’s struggles against the phoniness, superficiality, and banality of (adult) America resonates with today’s youth no less than with earlier generations, and articulates a profound and powerful alienation. The novel seems to me a literary equivalent of the musical acts of defiance that galvanized and characterized whole eras–Elvis’s hip swivels, John Lennon’s (misinterpreted) “We’re more popular than Jesus” remark, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”–but with a much longer shelf-life. And the novel’s staying power is extraordinary: most of us remember our first reading of the novel, and the extraordinary feeling it produced that we were not, in fact, utterly alone in making our way through the meaningless void of American consumer culture. Holden spoke to and for the American yearning not to grow up, and to our desire to preserve the passion of youth in a world that seemed so intent on suffocating it. Like a sophisticated, disenchanted Peter Pan, Holden articulates his rage against the machine of an uncaring society, and perpetually reminds us not only that we were once young, but that as long as we resist, we still are.
Like Holden, historian Howard Zinn spoke to and for the underdog. His People’s History of the United States (1980)* is less a conventional “history” than a corrective polemic on behalf of the “slaughtered and mutilated.” Zinn’s goal was never an objective revision of the American narrative; instead, he worked to reassert those voices of democracy that are too messy, contentious, and diffuse to fit tidily into that story and, thereby, to celebrate and inspire the acts of ordinary citizens. Like Holden Caulfield, Zinn raged against the forces of suppression and authority. His greatest success is not that he got the story of America “right,” but that he insisted our story was infinitely more nuanced, complex, and conflicted, and therefore far richer, than what had been taught in our high school history classes. In its emphasis on the sacrifices and achievements of ordinary people, he carved out space for new histories that told the tales of more than just the “winners,” and reminded us that like Holden, we can stand up to the forces of governmental and cultural “phoniness.” And that when we do, we sometimes win.
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