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What is J.D. Salinger to us? Catcher in the Rye was assigned reading in high school, presented by the establishment as a fine example of the antiestablishment. And we devoured it. The kids who hated literature loved Catcher. The kids who loved literature sought out more Salinger (and found very little). Moreover, Catcher as a novel and Salinger as a type of writer became cultural touchstones for generations. We remember the descriptions of Robert Ackley with his pimples and mossy teeth, the mysteriously termed throw that Holden can get for five dollars with a hotel prostitute. Most of all we remember the tone of the novel, at once funny, mean, and sad. But even today, as we are surrounded by entertainment that is arguably funnier and certainly meaner, Catcher still resonates with students. Why?

Hemingway famously stated that all modern American literature comes from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In reality, in the latter half of the 20th Century and I think still today, it would be more accurate to say that all modern American writing comes from Hemingway. Short, understated sentences composed of unsentimental, ordinary words. This is how we were taught to write, how we were taught to edit, and what we were taught to value in the writings of others.

It is in this context that we first read Salinger. And while the vulgarities got our attention, I think it is the exposed emotion of the narrator that was really the most shocking. It seemed almost as if the redacted portions of a story had been published by accident, while the approved and conventional parts were left out. When the same English instructor who taught us to write controlled, straightforward prose assigned Catcher in the Rye, the world got a little rounder. We were learning how to write for success, but Salinger reminded us of the voice inside, of the emotions behind the facts. And if we could not get away with writing like that, or of sharing aloud how we really felt about the adults around us, Salinger did it for us. With their permission, it turns out.

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