I found the reaction yesterday to the news of the death of J.D. Salinger interesting to watch as threads appeared on various message boards I frequent.
The news first hit the message boards made up predominantly of men - this was of little surprise to me. The Holden Caulfield effect, the privileged young man rebelling against the very privilege that gives him a platform to rebel, speaks most loudly to teenage boys trying desperately to escape their fathers' fates. Many of the posts in these threads expressed true, deep grief for the man who had been virtually invisible for the last 50 some-odd years. Many touting his one novel as being the best book they ever read.
With keen interest, I closely observed another message board, one populated most predominantly (say, 98-2) by women my age or very near. This is a board of media-savvy people who often break celebrity deaths the second after TMZ or Perez has. I was actually quite surprised to find no mention of this literary great's death even thirty minutes after I'd heard. In fact, the R.I.P. thread that was finally created didn't appear for a good six hours after the first thread (of many) on the first message board - the one of mostly men. And in that one and only R.I.P. thread, there are still only seven replies, most of which are of the generic sad smilie type.
I lean more with the men on this one, than the women. Now, part of this, obviously, is that I am enamored of great writing more than just about anything in this world (with the exception of great music) so that certainly fuels a lot of my sadness. But also, I identified with Holden Caulfield, much as the men on the first message board did, when I was a less-privileged - but not unprivileged - teenager and first read the book. Adults were phonies! They dressed a role Monday through Friday and acted nice toward people they hated and thought nothing of sucking up to someone they had no respect for. I was never going to be like that! I thought Holden Caulfield was, perhaps, the greatest character ever written and hell yes, I wanted to be like him. Gender divide be damned!
I'm a bit of a tomboy. Only slightly less now than when I was a younger. And to say a bit of is actually a bit of an understatement. I'm a tomboy, even now. I have no opinion on shoes nor purses, my favorite hairstyle is bedhead and I will never understand how psychotic some women can get (although, to be fair, I will also never understand how placid some men can be, even in the face of a psychotic woman). I'm not a traitor to my gender, but I am not really a full participant in it either. A part of me does want to be James Dean or Holden Caulfield, to push out against the expectations and actually experience the parts of life that passed me by while I was too busy doing the things I was supposed to be doing. I never believed in the life track that many women dream of: college, career, marriage, kids, grandkids, etc. College, sure. Career, only if it's fun. Marriage, whatever. Kids, no thank you. Grandkids, well, see Kids. That path is too predictable. All paths are too predictable. Much better to abandon paths altogether and go where I go, when I go. Find out when I get there where it is I went. That would have been my ideal. Of course, I might have required a little more privilege to reach it, but that would have been my ideal.
Perhaps this is why Holden Caulfield had such a hold on the men reflecting on his author than the women. Why the woman merely acknowledged another celebrity death* and the men truly mourned it. The men have been fighting against pre-conceived paths while the women have been dreaming about them. Holden Caulfield took up the banner for leaving the paths behind and forging new paths of nonconformance. This is antithetical to the stereotypical dreams of little girls. I can attest to this, simply thinking back on high school and the expectations of women's wardrobe choices. And how I chose not to fulfill those expectations. Then or now.
As I've grown, I've followed a few well-defined paths and I don't regret it. I do wish I'd forged a few more, but I think I've chosen nice paths. I think it was nice to have the luxury to imagine a life wherein all the choices came solely from me, but reality bites hard. And I bet, if Holden Caulfield had been a real boy, he would have discovered that too. I guess that's the bonus to being a fictional character.
*As per usual, there are exceptions to every rule and this is no different. My friend Mel and a few other women have reflected on the Holden Caulfield in themselves and turns out, I am not alone and that is a very nice feeling. Especially when it is my friends keeping me company.