In Place of a Hero

In Place of a Hero

Young people today have no spokesmen. The day of the youth league and its ideology seems to be over. Today we have the club again, and the gang, and perhaps the family. It might even be wrong to say that the young have heroes—models of courage, skill, commitment or self-sacrifice. Bright middle-class teenagers often have a developed sensitivity to each other’s problems, but are very unlikely to require heroic activity from their friends. Young people do sometimes have successes: short-run Horatio Algers of the entertainment industry, eighteen year old novelists, precocious females demure and impure. These are even sought out, by men who know the market. But among the young themselves, they are usually the objects of a very cynical admiration; they have “made it”—which is to say: they have been made.

Ideology, heroism, success: none of these seems sufficiently compelling. For the young today, the importance and excitement of the adult world have become somewhat problematic. On the one hand this can lead to that odd combination of indifference and professionalism which one sometimes encounters in college students. On the other hand, it produces an earnest confusion, less often critical than nostalgic, which contemplates without enthusiasm or alternatives its possible maturity.

Some sense of this confusion and of the painful sincerity that goes with it is necessary in order to understand the phenomenon of J. D. Salinger, the writer most admired and read by many young people today. In one sense, Salinger represents the indulgence of a mood; but he is also the confidant of those who indulge the mood. Affectionate and tender, he speaks to the adolescent soul with urgent but reassuring intimacy. Yet he is also full of advice. He understands the ways in which growing up is a misfortune, a process of compromise and surrender. Reconciliation, however, and not resistance is his eventual concern: he is whimsical, all right, but not absurd. His opening theme is childhood lost, his conclusion is a half-mystic, half-sentimental resignation—with an ultimate glimpse of childhood regained. Finally, he is successful, appealing and comforting because he suggests a kind of reconciliation with the adult world which is at the same time an evasion of worldliness.

It is in grateful recognition of this evasion that many young people have accepted Salinger’s characters, Holden Caulfield as a brother and Seymour Glass as a private and sainted memory. Holden, it should be remembered, had his last fling at sixteen; Seymour committed suicide at thirty-one. The two events have the very moderate virtues of aimlessness and failure—we don’t after all want moral lessons—but in their retelling, Salinger slips into sentimentality, contrived whimsy and a cagey, esoteric piety. So the academic critics, committed as they are to the surface seriousness of things, call Holden a pilgrim, and undoubtedly one of them will sho...