Catcher in the Rye and An American Childhood Comparative Essay


The experience of coming of age is one of the few journeys that links every adult in the human race. Unfortunately for many, the process of becoming an adult is an arduous test of character and will. In the novels An American Childhood by Annie Dillard and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the main characters struggle through the process of coming of age. Annie Dillard illustrates the process of maturing by exploring her own experience, highlighting the many subtle pillars that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood, where as Holden Caulfeid fears aging because he sees the adult world as phony and painful. The experiences of both Caulfeid and Dillard are similar in that they struggle with the meaning and responsibilities that accompany adulthood.  The texts of An American Childhood and The Catcher in the Rye are similar because the main characters share experience a moment of awakening, loss of wonder, and then moments of discovery.

One of the fundamental experiences Annie Dillard and Holden Caulfeild explore is their ascent into self-awareness. Annie describes this process as if waking from sleep, saying “I discovered myself and the world…I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back…” (Dillard, 11) As she begins to see the world around her for what it is, she also begins to discover herself.  Dillard speculates that once children begin to become conscious of how social norms dictate action, they become aware of the burden of free will. Holden too has a moment of awakening but, unlike Annie his moment comes at the end of the novel after Holden wrestles bleakly with the phoniness and repulsiveness he sees in the adult world. During the penultimate chapter of the novel that Holden seems to break free of his dark and despairing thoughts. “I felt so goddamn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so goddamn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could have been there.” (Salinger, 213)  Throughout the book Holden is desperately trying to get people to listen to his fears about adulthood. Holden wants to stop time, to preserve his innocence, but when he sees Phoebe on the carousel he realizes time does not follow a straight line leading to adulthood instead it is corrupted by a cycle that goes to and from innocence. Both Annie and Holden's moments of awakening are instrumental in their coming of age and link The Catcher in the Rye and An American Childhood through a common theme.

For children, discovery is often accidental, and the awe that comes with the simplest of discoveries can be magnificent. Yet, as Dillard points out, somewhere between childhood and adolescence appreciation for the commonplace begins to ebb. In one instance she tells of her fear and eventual understanding of a mysterious light that would come into her room at night. She suggests that the childhood sense of wonder, and sometimes fear disappear because of a child’s own special sense of reason: “Figuring it out was a long and forced ascent into the very rim of being, into the membrane of skin that both separates and connects the inner life and the outer world…night after night I labored up the same chain of reasoning…I could be connected to the outer world by reason…” (Dillard, 21-22). As children begin to exercise their power of deduction the world begins to lose its luster, the magic of things like Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy all begin to fade away as reason takes over.  Holden too feels a lack of awe at the world around him. “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and they're pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody's be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you'd be so much older or anything. It wouldn't be that, exactly. You'd just be different, that's all.” (Salinger, 121) When he visits the Natural History Museum he merely appreciates its ever-present nature, but no longer feels the childish joy and awe that he once did. His innocence wanes, the one aspect of his personality he was trying to protect disappears, and yet, the predictable landscape of the museum reflects what Holden wants – the stopping of time. Through Annie’s realization that the monster in her bedroom is no monster, and Holden’s mere appreciation for the museum it is clear that both characters have lost the attachments to fear and awe they once had, only to be replaced with reason.

One of Dillard’s and Salinger's strongest messages in their books is that discovery is the force that batters and eventually breaks through the barrier between childhood and adulthood. Once children begin to discover the power of careful reason and are able to connect to the world around them they, “wake up and find themselves here…they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest…surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills.” (Dillard, 11) Though the maturing process may be burdened by grim circumstances and progress comes in lurching moments of insight, children begin to learn lifelong skills during this stage of maturing and start testing them in everyday life. Annie's experiences with scientific and woodsy interests yield skills that seem to go unused, however, as time passes it is these deep lessons that lead her to make various choices as an adult. Holden also struggles with an unconventional learning process as he stumbles through getting kicked out of three expensive prep schools for “not applying himself” and fails four out of the five classed he was taking as Pency. “Dear Mr. Spencer [he read out loud]. That is all I know about the Egyptians. I can't seem to get very interested in them although your lectures are very interesting. It is all right with me if you flunk me though as I am flunking everything else except English anyway. Respectfully yours, Holden Caulfield. He put my goddam paper down then and looked at me like he'd just beaten the hell out of me in ping-pong or something. I don't think I'll ever forgive him for reading me that crap out loud. I wouldn't've read it out loud to him if he'd written it—I really wouldn't. In the first place, I'd only written that damn note so that he wouldn't feel too bad about flunking me.” (Salinger,12) Holden’s lack of retention and interest reflects his disinterest in the world in general. He seems unintelligent, at least in academic terms, because he is not applying himself to the task of embracing the norms of the education system. When he enters the mummy exhibit of The Natural History Museum he tells the two boys with him all about the Egyptians, symbolizing his transformation from indifferent adolescent to a mature and caring young man. Connecting both books is a narrative of destiny as Annie and Holden experience similar, seemingly fruitless learning periods, but later find the once useless knowledge serves to benefit them.

            The texts An American Childhood and The Catcher in the Rye are similar because the main characters both experience a moment of awakening, loss of wonder, and moments of discovery. The experiences of both Holden and Annie parallel in that they both struggle with what becoming an adult means and the responsibilities that accompany adulthood. By understanding the fundamental essence of what brings a person into maturity one can find creativity and renewed sense of discovery that allows them to succeed in the light of readiness and reason, instead of illusion and fear.