Holden Caulfield and European Hipsters: A New Look At an Old Book

By Caren Badtke

If Holden Caulfield, protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s signature novel The Catcher In The Rye had known that he would, at one point, be an inspiration for Europe’s hipsters – he might have just shot himself with a scattergun. Europe in general might, in some aspects, be slightly less hypocritical than the United States of America, but these so-called “phonies” sure are everywhere.

6607432-MThe Catcher In The Rye, published in 1951 by Little, Brown and Co., has been a work of constant discussion ever since. Intense public discourse has since died down a bit, apart from American high school students groaning at a teacher’s assigning of the book, international magazines naming the work in their literature top lists every once in a while, and author J.D. Salinger’s death in early 2010.

The Catcher in the Rye is rarely assigned in European Schools, yet it remains a mainstay of national curricula throughout the rest of the world. Nonetheless, one will find that the book is well-known and considered a classic among the younger crowd in Europe. Sitting in a café or on the U-Bahn, paperback in hand, you won’t find any of said hipsters reading something as “mainstream” as The Catcher in the Rye,  but since it belongs to the silent consensus, you’ll assume they have read it at some point. Holden Caulfield, the chain smoking, reject is kind of a hipster prototype after all. It might have skipped a generation of young Europeans, but has hit a climax in popularity a few years ago.

Holden Caulfield, a wary teenage rebel with a kind heart, is a slightly annoying, but overall lovely character that has been an object of contention for readers who cannot remember their own adolescence, or have not encountered similar self-finding trips, and thus cannot relate. Nonetheless, the story cannot be said to depict the ‘typical’ teenager. Caulfield is an outsider; he is not at all your basic teenage boy. He is insightful, but awkward and complex. He is a loser.

The storyline is consuming and catchy once readers let themselves in for bittersweet metaphors and moody monologues. Although the novel was published more than 60 years ago, Mr. Salinger’s style of writing is truly progressive. Caulfield curses, hesitates, smokes, and wants to get really, really drunk much of the time. The Catcher in the Rye shows an authentic, historic New York City through the eyes of an atypical anti-hero. This coming-of-age novel has detailed, carefully developed characters.  Other frequent characteristics among Catcher-in-the-Rye-enthusiasts may be the preference of vinyl to in-ear-buds, the will to go on a road trip with empty pockets and the firm belief that Philip Seymour Hoffman has been the greatest actor of all times.

It is hard to say if I enjoyed this book for the right reasons. Is it that good, objectively? Or is did the notion of not wanting to be “basic” play in to my appreciation of this work of fiction? In the end, The Catcher in the Rye is a book of extreme cultural impact, and made it to number 88 on Le Monde’s list of the 100 best books of the 20th century. This novel was truly avant-garde at the time it was published, with a world all but not ready for it. The world might not even be ready for it by now, but who knows? Maybe this was J.D. Salinger’s attention all along.

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