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Does J.D. Salinger's antihero resonate with today's teens?

In the wake of J.D. Salinger's death, we wonder if he is to a new batch of teenagers what he was to the millions who have cracked The Catcher in the Rye since 1951: relatable.

Salinger's impact on American culture in the past 50 years is immeasurable. He taught us to root for the subversive, sensitive, authentic outsider, and even made that role cool. It was Salinger wafting through John Lennon's Working Class Hero, wasn't it? Wasn't he somewhere behind Larry Clark's lens in Tulsa or Kids? Kurt Cobain and Gus Van Sant and Wes Anderson and . . . ?

But think for a minute of how we've changed, of Xanax and Baby Einstein and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, of Facebook and cell phones and limitless connectivity with our Circle of Friends. We like group hugs and happy endings and grief counselors. Harry Potter always wins in the end.

Salinger "embodied a kind of American resistance that has been sorely missed these last few years, and will now be missed even more," novelist Jonathan Safran Foer told the Associated Press.

Authenticity. Spirituality.

"Gone, all gone," wrote Henry Allen in Friday's Washington Post.

Can kids still get down with Holden Caulfield?

"For the most part, the kids either really love Holden or they really hate him," says Dominick Giombetti, 42, who teaches The Catcher in the Rye to his ninth grade English class at Tampa Preparatory School. "There's not a lot of gray area."

Those who hate him, Giombetti says, get sick of his whining.

"They're kind of like, 'Enough already. Why don't you do more about it instead of complaining?' They want to see Holden be held accountable."

The same is true in Heather Ewing's English class at Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg. They're reading Catcher now, and some of her students tire of Caulfield's endless search for identity and his bellyaching. It strikes them as immature.

But there are just as many kids who still relate.

"A lot of the stuff he wrote about in that novel is still around today and still happens," says Nick Guarcello, 14, a freshman at Admiral Farragut, who has read the book twice. "There are still kids who feel like they are alone and abandoned."

Even if we live in a post-Columbine age of nowhere to hide, where sadness and pessimism is identified, diagnosed and treated, there are ways to remain a disaffected outsider. It's still possible to be lonely.

Tampa Prep's Giombetti: "I've asked my students, 'In this world of Facebook and texting and instant messaging and connectivity at your fingertips, do you still feel lonely?' And they say, 'Yeah. Without a doubt.' "

Surprise. And not really.

"Holden is searching for his identity and he's afraid to grow up and he doesn't want to face the reality of what's going on," says Melisa Mayuri, 18, a senior at Palm Harbor University High School. "Those are things teenagers are still dealing with."

Well, some of them.

"My sister really didn't like it," said Ariana Lazzaroni, 16, a junior at Palm Harbor University who has read the book three times.

"She was just like, 'It's just him talking on and on for the whole book. Nothing happens. He just talks.'

"She kind of has a point because the story is not really plot-oriented. It's more like real life. And the reality is that most of your life when you're a teenager is not really about what's happening to you or what you're making happen, it's what's happening inside your head. And that can be confusing sometimes."

And that's relatable. The despair. The confusion.

Holden Caulfield needs a hug.

"I wish Holden was a real person because I would be his friend," says Lazzaroni. "I just love his honesty. He doesn't suck up. He doesn't try to be anything he's not. He doesn't play any of the world's games. I do. I don't think I'm that similar to him, but I like some of the things he stands for."

In Giombetti's class at Tampa Prep, the students design a Facebook page for Caulfield. Their creations are diverse. One student surprised Giombetti. The student's Facebook design bore no photos, no friends, nothing but a name: Holden Caulfield.

In Ewing's class at Admiral Farragut, one assignment is to diagnose Caulfield. She gives them a list of mental health issues to choose from: bipolar disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder.

In 2010, the teenagers do a good job of identifying problems Holden Caulfield never knew he had.

In what would be J.D. Salinger's final act, he did what teenagers do: He stormed up to his room and slammed the door in eternal defiance. Once in a while, he poked his head out just long enough to see that we haven't really changed.

Does J.D. Salinger's antihero resonate with today's teens? 01/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 1, 2010 7:20pm]
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