I never thought I would find myself in agreement with the religious right about much of anything, much less the banning of a book assigned to local high school students. Yet on Tuesday, the governing board of the Marysville Joint Unified School District will vote on whether to remove "The Catcher in the Rye" (New American Library, 1951) from its approved reading list, and I would urge them to go ahead and do just that.
Yes, of course I am against censorship in our schools and libraries. But I strongly believe that certain modern novels just do not work well on the high school level, and this is one of them. My criticisms have little in common with the objections raised by one parent concerning the book's subject matter and language."I want them to replace this book with something we can be proud of as Americans, with a representation of American literature," says Steve Souza in his letter to the Marysville School Board. Apparently the tender sensibilities of Souza's 11th-grade daughter were dealt quite a blow by the novel's language and action, a situation for which I must confess little sympathy. It seems to me the average 11th-grader these days has heard stories and language that are far more shocking than those employed by J.D. Salinger. And contrary to this parent's opinion, this novel is indeed representative of the best of American literature, a subject I have been teaching on the high school and college level for the past 25 years.
Still, I agree the novel is a poor choice for most high school readers. I say this for literary, not moral reasons. Like many other modern novels, this work appears to be one that young people can "relate to" and understand. Relate to, yes. Understand, no. Unless students have some literary background - and believe me, students are short on background these days - they will erroneously see in the story of Holden Caulfield justification for youthful cynicism and existential angst. These are precisely the stances toward life that our culture needs to discourage, not promote - especially since these are the tired themes of our pop culture. Yet Salinger himself is conveying no such message; he is in fact presenting just the opposite to the perceptive reader. The story is told by an unreliable narrator, and readers unfamiliar with modern literature's propensity for irony and indirection will just flat out misread the book.
All this is reason enough not to assign such modern works, at least not until students are familiar with the conventions and traditions of our literature - a familiarity that used to be more commonplace 30 years ago when "The Catcher in the Rye" and other modern works began appearing on high school reading lists. In the post-literate era of today, teachers are lucky to encounter a student who has read A.A. Milne or Roald Dahl, much less Twain or Irving or Hawthorne.
Those who feel inclined to rally to the defense of these modern high school favorites should have another think on the matter. If trends in the teaching of high school English indicate anything, they indicate how confusing the so-called "modern classics" have been for the average high school student, who upon graduation appears to adopt a lifelong disdain for similar literature, judging from the best-seller lists.
Novels like "The Catcher in the Rye" should of course be available for students in the school library, but whether such works are assigned to bright 11th- and 12th-graders should depend on what courses the student has already completed. Let's put Salinger back on the shelf and assign a classic. Students will learn more. And - who knows? - they may even acquire a taste for Hawthorne or Cather or Thoreau, not to mention the modern writers.
Timothy May teaches English and film studies at Yuba College in Marysville, Calif.