The Dead

Benjamin Kerstein has an excellent and serious essay at TNL looking at the recently deceased Howard Zinn, the historian of choice for people who didn’t like U.S. history and wanted a new one. As he and others have noted, in the final analysis Zinn wasn’t even a good Marxist, given his fatalism and view of the conspiracy of the elite as an essentially static and permanent phenomenon.
As to the other and even older writer who died this week, JD Salinger (he was 91; Zinn was 87), I have nothing to say about him personally, but his name and obituaries bring back bad memories. I hated Catcher in the Rye when it was assigned to me in high school; it struck me at the time as the kind of thing adults think teenagers would like to read, but neither its turgid prose nor its whining narrator offered much in the way of entertainment or even a good topic to write a five-paragraph essay about. I suppose the book’s durable success suggests that somebody actually liked it as a teen, or at least saw value in claiming to, but not me.
Literature was never my thing – I always preferred history – but I did have a few assignments I liked. The easy one was when my sophmore English teacher gave us a list of possible book report topics, and being a Red Sox fan he included Peter Gammons’ book Beyond the Sixth Game. But that’s cheating. I loved Julius Ceasar, and enjoyed The Crucible, Macbeth, Hamlet, Bartleby the Scrivener, and Animal Farm (we did that one in seventh grade). Besides Catcher in the Rye, I hated Steinbeck (we read tons of Steinbeck, even his dreary take on King Arthur), A Separate Peace (did that one twice), The Old Man and the Sea, Dubliners, and pretty much anything else that had no likeable characters, no action, no humor and no political intrigue. I managed to avoid taking any English classes in college (thank you, AP exam), but got assigned a bunch of Orwell in my British Empire class, and loved all of it – my Orwell Reader is dog-eared, and I still mean sometime soon to go back and read Down and Out in Paris and London in its entirety (I’d read only a lengthy excerpt focusing on Orwell’s time in a Paris restaurant).

23 thoughts on “The Dead”

  1. “Literature was never my thing – I always preferred history.”
    I’m with you on that one. I read much of the same stuff you read in high school. I thought most of them were OK, but I can’t say I was really into any of them. I do remember hating – absolutely hating – Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth.” I don’t think I bothered finishing it.
    I never took an English class at HC either. Since I practically OD’d on history and the IR courses in policy sci, I never really tried too hard to get into one. I have a feeling I would have liked the books, but hated the classes and papers. Besides, I tried to avoid too many papers due to track.
    As for that Zinn guy, I never read him. The only alt-history author I remember from college was William Appleman Williams.

  2. Is there another hugely popular book as divisive as Catcher In The Rye? I also totally hated that book so much so that I question people that love it. And I’m no anti-literature hater either although I prefer non-fiction. I’ve always wondered whether Catcher is one of those things that people say they like because it’s trendy and everyone else says they like rather than because it’s actually good.

  3. I read “1984” and I also paid attention during the George W. Bush Administration.
    Orwell was an optimist!

  4. In defense of Catcher in the Rye, like many of you, I didn’t love literature back in high school. But I found that book very readable, easy to follow and to understand the characters and symbols. I did a paper on it Junior year – and went on to read Franny & Zoey and some of Salinger’s short stories. I remember when I was doing the paper, my mother, who was always trying to get me to read more, told me to get over Catcher in the Rye already and to read other things. She wasn’t too impressed with the angst-ridden slacker type. I think she did snap me out of it. So now I still appreciate the book – but certainly wouldn’t say it changed my life.

  5. Orwell was a courageous man, strictly honest, and a great read besides. One of the few leftists willing to look at the Left honestly; or course in doing so he changed course himself.
    And, he gave us a whole universe of reference points in “1984.” Earlier today I found myself speaking with a woman at the NYS Department of Aging; I felt like I had somehow slipped into an Orwell novel, if not a Firesign Theatre album!

  6. I love literature and read about a book a week. And I too hated Catcher in the Rye. The narrator is insufferable.
    In your third paragraph, you imply Steinbeck wrote Catcher in the Rye.
    But Steinbeck is wonderful. Of Mice and Men, wow, that’s a great story.
    The Old Man and the Sea and Dubliners are not nearly the best books by their respective authors. You must read For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises. Much better than Old Man. Ulysses is much better than Dubliners, but you probably won’t like Ulysses. It’s hard to get into, to say the least.
    Gore Vidal might be the “historian” of choice for people who want to rewrite U.S. history. I don’t like Vidal’s politics at all, but I actually like his books quite a bit.

  7. I always wanted to beat the crap out of Holden Caufield. Never liked that book. Not once. On the other hand Of Mice and Men is very good and I have always had a soft spot for Frannie and Zoey. I’ll save my complete contempt for Hemmingway and leave the one book stuff for things like Catcher in the Rye and the (oh so narcissitic) World According to Garp.

  8. Loved everything on the ole GS/ HS reading lists, with the exception of Catcher (went for the Natural and Eight Men Out instead) and two others. Great Expectations was a drag, but the worst HS book ever (and the sucker was mandatory) was Silas Marner. Even original Aeneid was snappier.

  9. World AT Gary is narcissistic. Man oh man. Right up there with the Dave Eggers shill.
    Scratch what I said about you implying that Steinbeck wrote Cather in the Rye. I realize now what you were saying.

  10. I’m not sure if the idea of telling self-absorbed, narcisssistic teenagers that the world ought to revolve around them existed before Salinger invented it, and it’s held enormous cultural influence ever since. If that’s his legacy, it is, at best, a dubious one.

  11. I’ve found books that I never enjoyed when forced to read them in English class are much more enjoyable when read as an adult for pleasure. Steinbeck and Orwell for sure but also Sinclair Lewis(Mainstreet,Arrowsmith,Babbitt) Goldings(Lord of the Flies)even Shakespear if annotated. The key is just enjoying a book and not looking at it as fifty or a hundred pages you have to read by the end of the week.

  12. IMHO, Salinger will be forgotten except as a footnote when all those born before say 1970 have died.
    And a chick flick, My Foolish Heart, not all that bad, was made from one of his stories, with a great Victor Young score. He looked down zee nez at the film & never sold any more of his stories.
    In any event, Holden Caulfield was a big shock in 1951 & meant something to every teenager then & sometime later, but if you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is what I was doing when I first read it in my phony childhood & in the colloquiums of the day, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. . . . I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography as it relates to Catcher.

  13. Crank
    You’re silly when you, Henry Ford like, say “all literature is bunk”.
    Especially when most historians are boring & those who can write well are dismissed by the Academics as “history popularizers”.

  14. Zinn did what all lefties do-don’t argue with real facts, just create your own facts. Since they can’t point to any successes of their policies, all they can do is try to tear down everything and everyone else

  15. My 13 year old reaction to “Catcher In The Rye” was: “Holden should have just f-ed that whore”. I read it twenty years later and had the same reaction.

  16. I never knew anyone else hated “Catcher in the Rye” like I did. Every thing I read of Salinger was the same blubbering, suicidal shit. He must have been one miserable asshole… a liberal, no doubt.

  17. I really liked reading literature when i was in grade school through college. I hated Catcher in the Rye and could not understand why it was so acclaimed. I finally asked the head of an English Dept why CitR was considered a classic. His answer was that it was technically well written and the theme was unusual for its time. But he did not have it as a ‘required’ reading.
    My first Steinbeck story was “The Pear”. It was also my last Steinbeck story.

  18. hey, who took my “L” away?! 🙂
    correct my post to read:
    My first Steinbeck story was “The Pearl”. It was also my last Steinbeck story.

  19. I also think that Catcher in the Rye is one of the most overrated books ever written. It’s actually been interesting seeing the response to Salinger’s death, because as near as I can tell, anyone that liked it has chosen to keep quiet about it.
    Steinbeck, on the other hand, was a great writer. If all you’ve read is the Pearl or the Red Pony, well, you aren’t in a position to judge him. The Grapes of Wrath is a great book. Of Mice and Men might be the best short novel ever written. And Cannery Row is outstanding.

  20. My first Steinbeck story was Travels With Charley, which was also my last Steinbeck story. Absolutely the worst thing I read in high school. Unlike Richard Deegan, I actually liked Silas Marner though. Like Jim, I also wanted to beat the crap out of Holden Caufield, who was far too whiny for my taste.

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