For the past half-century, J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye has been the definitive coming-of-age story by which all others in American literature are judged.
First published in 1951, Catcher quickly became and remains one of the most widely read books by American teenagers. Salinger's brilliant portrayal of narrator Holden Caulfield, a sardonic and satirical 16 year-old teenage boy expelled from prep school, has managed to dig a firm trench in the literary landscape with its themes of youthful rebellion, alienation, and despair.
In compliment to its multimedia exhibit, "Fifties Flashback: Popular Culture and American Society," UB's Arts and Sciences Libraries presented a reading and discussion of "Catcher in the Rye" last Wednesday led by David Willbern, professor of English, associate vice provost for educational technology and director of the Educational Technology Center.
Willbern's presentation was the first of a four-week book discussion series encompassing popular novels published in the 1950s, entitled Reading the '50s.
Held in the Friend's Room of the Lockwood library's newspapers and microforms area, Willbern addressed Catcher in relation to his own growth with the novel, from adolescence in the Fifties and Sixties to teaching it in his "Best Sellers" classes. He also facilitated an informal discussion between those in attendance, consisting of a small group of professors and students.
Willbern characterized Salinger's novel as aggressive and anti-conventional. In a brief slide show entitled "From Beaver to Beavis," he likened the character of Holden to popular counter-culture male rebels like Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley in the Fifties to figures from the nineties such as Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur.
"Holden Caulfield is a figure of male adolescent rebellion and emotional uncertainty," said Willbern.
Willbern believes Salinger's Holden can be coupled with protagonists like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Charles Dicken's David Copperfield. Their respective characters illustrate first-person narratives of young males having trouble fitting society's expectations while coping with their growing maturity and encountering various social and personal problems.
In tracing his relation to Catcher, Willbern worked through three distinct time periods that altered his thoughts and views on the novel. The first centered on Willbern's own adolescent identification with Holden. Willbern would later shift to a more diagnostic and psychoanalytical view as he taught the novel early in his teaching career. As of recent, Willbern said he found himself thinking in more parental terms of worry and concern in relation to Holden.
According to Charles D'Aniello, associate librarian for the Arts and Sciences Libraries and one of series' organizers, the idea of "Reading the '50s" evolved from the library's involvement in helping to gather material for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's exhibit, "The Tumultuous Fifties: A View from the New York Times Photo Archives," curated by UB Distinguished English Professor Bruce Jackson.
The series continues today as Claude Welch, distinguished service professor of political science, presents a reading and discussion of Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart." On April 24, Jeannette Ludwig, associate professor of Modern Languages and Literatures will present Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." The final presentation centers on J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings," moderated by Cynthia Tysick, social sciences librarian of the Arts and Sciences Libraries.
All events will be held at 4 p.m. in the Friends Room of Lockwood Library.