'Catcher' Wins Legal Reprieve, But Does It Deserve A Literary One?

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July 05, 2009|By Dave Rosenthal | Dave Rosenthal,dave.rosenthal@baltsun.com

Bravo for Deborah Batts.

Last week, the federal judge barred U.S. distribution of an unauthorized sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. Her ruling was a victory for 90-year-old author J.D. Salinger, who for decades has jealously guarded his privacy - and his words.

The courthouse battle in Manhattan focused on 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, which tells the story of Holden Caulfield as a senior citizen. The book, written by a Swedish author, is available in Europe and was scheduled for a summer release here.

Authors have lots of leeway to parody other works, as anyone who ever read Mad or National Lampoon knows. But Salinger's lawyers argued that he retains an interest in Caulfield - 57 years after the classic was published - and called the new book a "ripoff."

Batts (Radcliffe, Class of 1969; Harvard Law, 1972) rejected claims that 60 Years was a critical examination or parody of the original, according to news reports. The literary battle may continue; Batts' order is a stopgap measure until a trial is held.

But her ruling doesn't address a larger issue: Is Catcher still relevant?

Last fall, Oberlin professor Anne Trubek argued that the book is past its prime. "I think that most American teenagers will find it rather tame and sort of laughable the things that were once considered so controversial," she said on National Public Radio. Certainly, today's teens shouldn't be fed a steady diet of books featuring angst-ridden white prep-school boys - A Separate Peace; Good Times, Bad Times - as I was. There are too many newer authors such as Junot Diaz and Toni Morrison who can offer a broader look at the world.

Yet Catcher remains a classic on the theme of searching for identity and meaning. That theme resounds today, just as it did 50, or 100, years ago. Consider the musical Spring Awakening, a recent Tony-winner adapted from a 19th-century German novel; it takes all of its power and energy from those universal themes.

And if kids can waste time watching Gossip Girl or 90210, there must be a place for Salinger's simple, powerful story.

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