IT IS a story that has been told before but, given the recent news, is worth telling again. In the classroom of a Galway school during the winter of 1966, there was a French teacher of a somewhat volatile nature in that the pupils never knew what was coming next.
For the Leaving Cert students, his was the last class of a Friday. On one such Friday at the beginning of October, realising that he didn’t exactly have the full attention of his class, their minds being on girls, football, and music in that order, he suddenly stopped teaching and said:
“OK lads, put away the books”.
We did and waited with bated breath slightly bemused and wondering what was coming next. He reached into the pocket of his cassock and withdrew what looked like a battered old paperback.
“I am going to read this book to you over the coming weeks as I think this is a book you should know about.”
Beginning at the first page and for the next six weeks or so, and to our delight he read The Catcher In The Rye from start to finish without expurgation. In the Galway of the late 1960s when television was still something of a novelty, international phone calls were unheard of, people fasted during Lent, gay still meant happy or joyful, and given the fact that our teacher was a Jesuit priest, this was indeed an innovation and one that, in terms of my own cultural development, was a watershed that has certainly remained with me ever since.
There are books that become an icon of their age, but rarely survive in the public mind thereafter. Rather than being just a reaction to the hypocrisy that pertained in Post War America, The Catcher In The Rye has become the bible of rebellious youth, the forerunner not just of the Beat generation, but also of the Rock generation, the Flower Power generation, and every other generation that has followed.
Perhaps this is because the book is written with a sincerity and spontaneity that ignores its time or place and reaches into the core of humanity, perhaps it is because of the tremendous energy and deep felt passion inherent in the prose, perhaps it is because of the sheer genius of the novel itself, but it has reached the status where people refer to it knowingly without ever having read it.
The recent death of JD Salinger the author, brought these memories flooding back and, had me, as I am sure it did countless others, reaching for the book. Then I hesitated and felt, in respect of Salinger’s own wish for privacy and the spirit in which I believe he wrote the book, that perhaps I should hold back and wait until things had settled down so that my own motivations for revisiting this classic should become clearer.
Let me then instead revisit (and leave the book until later ) that classroom with gratitude to that teacher for his insight and courage in introducing me to a whole new literature in such a wonderful and magical way and pay the only honest tribute I can to the man, whoever he is, whatever he is, or wherever he is, who created this great classic of modern literature by simply saying: “Thank you JD.”