Teaching Huck Finn after Catcher in the Rye, I’m struck—again—by how much the second book owes the first. Both boys suffer in their doubt. They navigate without maps but, even if they had them, neither boy seems capable of reading a map’s signs. Despite their impressive independence, neither can sustain himself, neither can accept help, and neither can pray.
Most of my students find Huck more likable. Huck uses of the n-word heavily and, maddeningly, fails to abstract his affection for Jim into a rejection of Slavery. But Twain’s implicit affection for Huck usually wins readers over. Huck is a liar like Holden—they see themselves as terrific fiction makers—but students often think Huck kinder because he witnesses violence without adopting it. He is a victim. Huck’s father Pap beats him regularly and, before Huck’s escape, chases him around a locked cabin with a knife, calling his son the “angel of death.” Huck overhears thieves planning to kill one of their own. He spies on a feud and the death of a new friend. He watches an assassination of one man by another and the impotent crowd that wilts in the killer’s righteousness. Yet Huck doesn’t take up violence himself. Disillusionment never really sticks. He remains a nice boy.
In contrast, Holden experiences little violence—a pimp punches him in the stomach over the price of a “throw”—but he often imagines violence. He wears “a people-shooting hat” and thinks about chopping a guy’s head off with an ax, and pictures slamming the heads of profanity-writers against the steps until they are “good and bloody.” He calls someone “a royal pain in the ass” in a fit of anger, and readers hear about his punching out all the garage windows after his brother’s death. My students know he has a fuse and scoot back in their chairs when I ask if they could be Holden’s friend. He may be more perceptive than Huck—not a wise fool but a wise smartass—yet readers trust him less. His disillusionment galls them. Most waffle over whether he’s a nice or not.
The difference creates reverse polarities. Some readers appreciate Holden in the end, but loving him requires heroic empathy and generosity. You have to see his flaws—and who can’t?—without blaming him. Every class contains a healthy number of Holden haters, people entirely intolerant of his voice. At the opposite extreme, my students forgive Huck so much. Though I find the escape Tom orchestrates for Jim unfunny, the pointless torture of a gentle and affectionate man, my students excuse Huck because resisting Tom isn’t in Huck’s nature. And they laugh. They are ready to see tearing up the letter revealing Jim’s location as a rejection of Slavery when it isn’t. Many leave the book eager for a sequel despite Huck’s abject misanthropy in the last few paragraphs.
When students ask which book I like better, I hide behind art and say both have merits. Salinger did not rewrite Huck Finn. He was not “copying,” but transmuting what wasn’t new even in Twain’s time. After all, how many naïve protagonists is an experienced reader likely to meet?—I could be writing about how Twain rewrote Tom Jones. Salinger places his hero in a world less blessed with landmarks and thus speaks to his own zeitgeist and personal battles. Huck has the great issue of his century to define himself against. Holden has no clear moral imperative to orient him. They are books, I say, refitting literary conventions to new times.
Still, my answer is a dodge. For me, they are equally agitating—one because the main character’s affability can’t save him from unconscious cruelty and the other because the hero’s failings kill most of his credibility. A solicitous reader sees these books are not what they purport to be. Are readers meant to embrace either Huck or Holden? One’s sweetness masks bile. The other’s bile drowns its sweetness.
I’d be cutting my own throat if I said what I’d like to—my students aren’t asking the right question. Are we supposed to read only what we like? As unpopular as it is to say so these days, books can be medicinal. While it’s wonderful to enjoy reading, some great books go well beyond entertainment, and some aren’t entertaining at all. I’d like to tell my class to look for works that bother them. I’d like to tell them to stop thinking about “good” and “bad”—I’m so exhausted hearing about it—and study their response. A better question may be, “What does your reaction to Huck or Holden say about you?”