Ninety years ago, a middle class white teenager would have most likely sported a clean haircut and corduroy pants and would have had nothing less than compliant views toward his parents. Today’s middle class white teenager has a shaggy haircut, wears ripped up jeans, and acts more independent of his parents. Post-war literature can be partially credited for this transition from a conventional youth to a rebellious one. J. D. Salinger, one of the foremost authors of the post-war literature movement, had an immense impact on post-war art, culture, and literature, through his use of dynamic characters.
In his most well known novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger focuses the novel on the main character, Holden Caulfield, rather than the plot. Holden Caulfield represents the hardships of adolescence. An intelligent, wealthy, young man, Holden is a teenage boy who is traumatized by the death of his younger brother. Holden is constantly failing out of school and finds himself lacking direction in life. He describes almost every occupation, ranging from:
school deans (Page 3)
military men (Page 86)
lawyers (Page 172) as being “phony”, while also claiming that one of the
only career paths not worthy of being deemed as “fake” are writers. This mindset can also be seen in the teenage counterculture that celebrates writers and artists and dislikes monotonous white-collar jobs, as demonstrated by catchphrases such as “do your own thing”.
The motif of phoniness can also be found in Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey. During Part 1, Franny Glass is out to lunch with her boyfriend, Lane, who she has not seen in weeks. Feeling guilty that she did not miss Lane (Page 4) Franny realizes that she does feel as compassionate towards Lane as she once did. With a clear mind, Franny begins to find unbearable phoniness in her own boyfriend. Irritated to the point of a rant, Franny goes off on Lane:
Well, I don’t know what they are around here, but where I come from, a section man’s a person that takes over a class when the professor isn’t there or is busy having a nervous breakdown or is at the dentist or something. He’s usually a graduate student or something. Anyway, if it’s a course in Russian Literature, say, he comes in, in his little button-down-collar shirt and striped tie, and starts knocking Turgenev for about a half hour. Then, when he’s finished, when he’s completely ruined Turgenev for you, he starts talking about Stendhal or somebody he wrote his thesis for his M.A. on. Where I go, the English Department has about ten little section men running around ruining things for people, and they’re all so brilliant they can hardly open their mouths-pardon the contradiction. I mean if you get into an argument with them, all they do is get this terribly benign expression on their [faces] (Page 8).
Franny’s aggression towards phoniness led her to wound a relationship with her peer, however she defended her principles.
Salinger’s critical view on phoniness influenced writer David Eggers, whose adolescence bears resemblance to Holden Caulfield’s. In Eggers’ memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius he spills out his life story of a white, middle class college student who loses both parents in one year and is left with the responsibility of his 12 year-old brother. After the passing of his parents, Eggers revisits death in an anecdote he shares, where he must convince his friend to back off of a suicide attempt. In this scene, Eggers goes possibly even farther than Salinger in diagnosing phoniness by calling the very act of suicide, a reoccurring thought of Holden’s, as phony. “I mean, the drinking alone? The wine and pills and everything? You’re such a f-cking cliché!” (Page 233).