Catcher at 60: Outside the White

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This article at The Daily Beast about the 60th anniversary of Catcher in The Rye struck me as a bit odd. Written by Ned Vizzini, here’s part of the opener:

[Holden Caufield] is the White Outsider—a Caucasian kid who despite his advantages feels misunderstood—and he has been everywhere from 1951 on, in Rebel Without a Cause, Spider-Man, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Nirvana, and Wes Anderson, to name a few. He is still the fountainhead of young-adult literature. He is still a handle for anyone wishing to comment on white privilege. He still pops up in press on everyone from Woody Allen to Osama bin Laden. Demographically, though, he has become an endangered species.

He’s talking about a white outsider no longer being a relatable character, then becoming an endangered species. Isn’t that the definition of what an outsider is?

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

Sure the demographics are changing, but much of what made Holden interesting and relatable is the feelings he felt in relation to his peers, not necessarily in relation to his race. Alienation is always a quality that persists, and much of what Caufield railed against were class issues, which has always been an enduring theme in art and culture, no matter the race. But there’s no denying that the two are often intertwined, but still as long as there is a social hierarchy of any sort (class, working relationships, size of living spaces) there will be room for Holden Caufield.

Plus, I’m not really concerned about how Catcher comes off to the majority., because that’s the point–he’s supposed to be in the minority. The enduring symbol of this is J.D. Salinger’s own hermit life; he always wanted to be left alone, to not become a popular iconic author.

Holden’s key characteristic is that despite his racial and economic advantages, he feels disconnected from and persecuted by his peer group. Change his race and his ostracizing peers become racist instead of just “phony.”

But you would have to think that particularly in Catcher, if you changed Holden’s race, you’d have to change the peer group’s racial make-up as well. Therefore, the angst against the system would still stand. And persecution from your peer group doesn’t necessarily depend on your color. In this modern world, it may depend on how popular/unpopular your Tumblr is.

Vizzini dives into a recent cultural conversation about the new Spiderman possibly being black. Donald Glover didn’t get the part, but Andrew Garfield did. In a truly ‘post-racial’ society as Vizzini calls it, the race wouldn’t matter. But there’d probably be more outrage at a white person being cast in a hypothetical movie version of ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ then someone being cast as a black Spiderman, due to the more cultural notions of express in ‘Oscar Wao’ than in Spiderman. Or are the issues in Spiderman more ‘white’ than ‘not white’? Is it too white to assume that Spiderman’s themes are universal?

Actually, never mind on that, it would be completely awesome if enough people cared about ‘Oscar Wao’ to actually be upset if something like that happened.

Was Holden defined by his whiteness? I haven’t read the book in a few years and i can’t immediately find my copy, but is whiteness actually stated or always implied? Have we always implied it?

It’s an interesting question, because a book I’ve compared to ‘Catcher In The Rye’ is ‘Shoplifting From American Apparel’ by Tao Lin. (If you haven’t read SFAA, the smoking in ‘Catcher’ has been replaced by smoothies). Though Lin is of Asian descent, he doesn’t necessarily write from that perspective or at least those issues are not addressed. Most of the time, we’ve assumed from the ethnic origin of names rather or not a certain race is being identified, which is another indicator that is fading.

The cynic would say Lin has taken on a muted white hipster position of privilege, and has assumed that identity (some form of Wasian? or inverted Wapanese? Chipster? DEF. 3).

But in even using the identifiers “white” or “Asian” I’ve fallen on my face and grouped all Asians together and all whites together, even though they exist in {{{{TOO MANY COUNTRIES TO LIST}}}}.

Let’s keep stumbling over these mistakes, tripping ourselves up again and again, until we realize that the racial identifiers are falling away, not because they’re not important (they are) or because they’ve become too muddled (they have), but because our society is moving away from these groupings to more common interests, blinded by these online networks of screens, avatars and anonymous posturing that knows little of background or race.

We shouldn’t lament the “white outsider” because that term is an oxymoron from the beginning. But stretch Vizzini’s argument further, and something interesting emerges. The ability to be a rebel is actually diminishing. With the recession, who has time to rebel? We’re all working our tails off, we don’t have time to Jack-Kerouac it across the great American landscape. Rebellion is for the young, but can be enabled by family circumstance.


None of this matters anyway, because the next outsider mythic figure will not appear from a book or a movie, but from video game, from a Facebook app, from a Tumblr meme, from a rap group that gets discoverd on Tumblr and makes the cover of every magazine. Unless Holden appears in one of those forms, neither teachers or students in the future will care about ‘Catcher in The Rye.’