Why Holden Caulfield Was the World's First Millennial Dipshit
Don't be this decade's Holden Caulfield, puhlease!
Like most high school students, I read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye for the first time when I was about 16. It was required reading that wasn’t supposed to feel required. Being roughly the same age as the protagonist, it was presumed I’d identify with Holden Caulfield’s teenage angst. Frankly, I didn’t understand his vendetta against maturity.
Years later, I learned Salinger’s intended audience for The Catcher in the Rye was, allegedly, adults, not teenagers. Revisiting the novel in my mid-twenties, this makes much more sense, even if it’s not true. Unlike teens, adults disillusioned with the realities of adulthood can actually identify with Holden’s aversion to growing up, especially, so the stereotype goes, today’s youngest adults, a/k/a millennials.
Given that Holden is the poster boy for disaffected youth, it’s not surprising that many of the negative stereotypes attributed to millennials can be applied to Salinger’s irreverent teen protagonist. Holden is essentially a millennial circa 1951, and the people who love to hate him for it may turn out to be the same people who love to hate what we are told are the defining notions of the millennial generation.
Do any of these characteristics of Holden sound very familiar, hmmmm?
He’s a narcissist.
At times, The Catcher in the Rye could be mistaken for an unabridged, self-indulgent Facebook post. Even the opening sentence reads like the beginning of a rambling status you’d hurriedly scroll past if you saw it in your newsfeed.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all the David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Though Holden claims he doesn’t “feel like going into it,” he takes oversharing to new lengths in a 200-and-some-odd page rant, indulging in a millennial-esque airing of grievances.
And he intends to stay that way. Even the title The Catcher in the Rye emphasizes Holden’s Peter-Pan-like quest to avoid growing up and reveals his desire to save other kids from this fate, too. The novel’s namesake makes its appearance toward the end of the book, when Holden explains his ideal job to his sister.
“I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”
Holden’s desire to avoid adulthood and all the responsibilities that come with it is pretty much a millennial mantra in the form of the hashtag #adulting. As in, “I cleaned my shower for the first time in six months #adulting.” Complaining about adult responsibilities has become Generation M’s favorite pastime, and is probably the type of thing Holden would have participated in if Twitter were around in 1951 (ironically, of course).
He’s not responsible for his actions.
The problem with Holden isn’t that he indulges in an introspective narrative (there’s nothing wrong with being self-aware). The problem is that he looks to his past not as a reason to change, but rather as a way of rationalizing his actions and blaming others for his mistakes.
“It wasn’t all my fault,” he says, recalling the time he left his school fencing team’s equipment on the subway.
“People are always ruining things for you,” he laments, remembering a time he made an excuse to leave a bar because he didn’t want to make small talk.
“People never notice anything,” he bemoans, wanting credit for the rare moments when he acts his age.
Holden is always the victim, and if you subscribe to Time magazine’s definition of millennials as “the me me me generation,” this self-centered rationale is very millennial.
When Holden decides he’s too miserable at school, he plans to spend a couple of days on vacation in New York City to relax. Because what kid who’s flunking out of school couldn’t use a rejuvenating Manhattan getaway?
“All of a sudden, I decided what I'd really do, I'd get the hell out of Pencey... I just didn't want to hang around any more. It made me too sad and lonesome. So what I decided to do, I decided I'd take a room in a hotel in New York—some very inexpensive hotel and all—and just take it easy till Wednesday... Besides, I sort of needed a little vacation. My nerves were shot. They really were.”
Unsurprisingly, he’s privileged, too.
“Everything I had was bourgeois as hell. Even my fountain pen was bourgeois...At first he only used to be kidding when he called my stuff bourgeois, and I didn’t give a damn—it was sort of funny, in fact. Then, after a while, you could tell he wasn’t kidding anymore.”
Like any irreverent teen with a bougie background, he resents the fact that his family has money. Despite the fact that he acknowledges this, it’s hard to feel bad for a rich kid running around New York City, avoiding his problems.
Perhaps the most stereotypically “millennial” moment comes at the end of the novel, when Holden is asked if he’s going to apply himself when he goes back to school.
“A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keep asking me if I’m going to apply myself when I go back to school next September. It’s such a stupid question in my opinion. I mean how do you know what you’re going to do until you do it? The answer is, you don’t. I think I am, but how do I know? I swear it’s such a stupid question.”
Holden doesn’t feel the need to invest any time trying to work toward a successful future. He just expects it to happen. This aimless, everything-will-work-out attitude borders on entitled, everyone’s favorite adjective to use when describing millennials.