A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America

By Grace Elizabeth Hale | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Lost Children of Plenty: Growing
Up as Rebellion

When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I
stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look
down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don’t
know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the
peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I
yelled at the top of my goddam voice
, “Sleep tight, ya
morons!” I’ll bet I woke up every bastard on the whole
floor. Then I got the hell out
.
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

After 1951, if a person wanted to be a rebel she could just read the book. Later there would be other things to read—Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. But J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was the first best seller to imagine a striking shift in the meaning of alienation in the postwar period, a sense that something besides Europe still needed saving. The success of this book and the many other novels, autobiographies, and films that followed its pattern made the concept of adolescent alienation commonplace, but in the postwar era the very idea shocked many Americans. Adults who had lived through depression and war believed that children growing up in peace and prosperity—Life named them “the luckiest generation”—should be happy. Salinger’s antihero Holden Caulfield was a particularly unlikely rebel. He lived unconstrained by poverty, racism, or antiSemitism, and he did not face the narrow options available for ambitious girls.

-13-

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