While I’m finishing up some stories about Italy, I thought I’d switch things up and discuss two of my favorite things: teaching and J.D. Salinger. Salinger, of course, is the author of the often-stolen and remarkably [in]famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye, a book so good its publication was arguably worth losing John Lennon. He also ironically increased his own celebrity status by trying to escape it, subsequently blowing up the world’s interest in him by telling everyone to screw off. He continued to write and date and freak people out and hide, like America’s literary Sasquatch, until his death in 2010.
I’ve written two blogs about different teaching tools for The Great Gatsby, and now that a new documentary and biography are about to be released about Salinger, I thought I’d do the same for him–since, like Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye (and Salinger’s mysterious biography) was a staple of the English III classes I taught.
First, maybe the most obvious tool for raising interest in Salinger’s writing is to raise interest in Salinger himself. I’d always try to do this, at least. And outside of the reclusive stuff, he had a pretty interesting life: The first woman he loved left him for Charlie Chaplin, he was one of the first Americans to help liberate a concentration camp while serving in WW2, he suffered from PTSD, he forbid anyone from ever making a movie of Catcher… The list goes on, but instead of only listing Salinger Facts, there are currently two different trailers for the new documentary, Salinger. And they’re both pretty intense, and also star-filled.
If anyone still questions whether or not Salinger is worth talking about, I bring up this: Steven Colbert recently dedicated an ENTIRE EPISODE of his show, disguising it as an Oprah-esque book club segment, to Salinger and his writing (and not just Catcher, but his short stories too, including the stories that surround the Glass family). Here is the Hulu link to the entire episode, and I highly recommend it:
This probably isn’t quite as exciting (to most people), but if you’re a teacher who has already covered Hemingway, it may be worth mentioning that while Hemingway was writing, reporting, and using government funds to hunt Nazis, he was also corresponding with the young Salinger while Salinger fought for the US during World War II. Some letters sent between the two of them might make for an interesting lesson–if I remember correctly, after having my students read a Salinger short story, I had them compare and contrast Salinger and Hemingway as writers and as people.
That’s another thing: Salinger’s short stories. After exploring Salinger’s career in the armed forces, and considering his life as a person suffering from what he experienced and saw during wartime, have students read the short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Have students analyze the themes, the miscommunications presented, and Seymour Glass as a character.
Need something for teaching Holden Caulfield and The Catcher in the Rye? Well, there are heaps of resources all over the place, but here are a few of my favorites.
First of all, any fast-talkin’ video where John Green gushes and analyzes simultaneously is great in my opinion. Some students may know of John Green because of the handful of YA novels he’s written. Those who haven’t read him will probably also like his take on literature. He’s smart, funny, and he doesn’t waste time.
Here is a different kind of summary by John Green, too. (“Different kind” = less visual)
Another one of my favorite resources is Poetry Genius, a branch of the incredible website, RapGenius.com. Poetry Genius lets fans of literature analyze and then annotate lines from prose and poetry line by line. It’s like a more detailed version of cliff notes, and it’s one that actually requires a close reading of the text, because it doesn’t provide simply a summary, but an explanation of key lines and passages. I have actually personally annotated quite a bit of The Catcher in the Rye on Poetry Genius because I believe so much in this website.
If you’d like to incorporate some music into your lesson, you can always use “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?” by Green Day. (The Catcher in the Rye is frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s favorite book.) A possible lesson is having students connect the lyrics to Holden’s personality and events in the book. The chorus probably offers the most potential for drawing connections:
There’s a boy who fogs his world and now he’s getting lazy
There’s no motivation and frustration makes him crazy
He makes a plan to take a stand but always ends up sitting.
Someone help him up or he’s gonna end up quitting
Finally, just for kicks and grins, you could always have your students invent a “better book title” for The Catcher in the Rye, much like the website, BetterBookTitles.com. Here are a few of Salinger’s stories retitled:
Anyway, I hope this has been helpful and all. Good luck teaching a classroom full of goddam phonies.