Writing in Forbes, Trevor Butterworth parses the responses to the deaths of J.D. Salinger, Howard Zinn, and Louis Auchincloss and concludes that America is a nation obsessed with adolescence—or, more precisely, obsessed with skewering “phoniness” the way adolescents do. Zinn’s and Salinger’s dismissals of mainstream groupthink, he writes were:
…like adolescence, a state of illusion. What is the upshot of exposing fakery except the belief that a morally unassailable authenticity is possible? What is Zinn’s account of an evil ruling class and an honest, oppressed people other than adolescent historiography—a point driven home with an excruciating lack of self-awareness in the movie Good Will Hunting, when Matt Damon tells his shrink, played by Robin Williams, that A People’s History will “knock you on your ass”?
You might be knocked on your ass, but to what end? What was there to believe in when marriage and family, society and country, and liberty and equality were all revealed to be messy constructs and not the simple renderings of childhood? Why even risk disillusionment when adolescence, and the guilt-free role of minor inquisitor, can be maintained as a cultural ideal?
Fair enough—nobody wants to be constantly surrounded by the person who’s poking you in the chest and telling you It’s all a big scam and You’re all a bunch of sheep, and I suppose that both Zinn and Salinger at times evoked (even created) that person. Still, that doesn’t mean that challenging authority, in fiction or otherwise, is always an adolescent act—or that writing about boardrooms, law firms, and prep schools, as Auchincloss did, might be a more noble goal.
If Auchincloss (who I haven’t read) successfully considered weighty matters of philosophy and financial corruption, as Butterworth argues, more power to him. But to say he’s a more valuable author for that is to get behind a dubious argument that some subjects are more important than others—that novels about money mean more than novels about childhood, in the same way that journalism about lawyers means more than journalism about education. It’s an argument that fiction’s job is somehow to do something—change the world, rally the citizenry—when fiction’s job, best as I can tell, is to be good fiction. If people turned Holden Caulfield’s story into a manual for living, that’s not Salinger’s fault—or somehow Auchincloss’ problem to fix.