March 16th, 2018 Interview with Dr. Shelley Rees at USAO

00:00 Dr. Rees: What do you want to know?

Max: I think a lot of what we’d like to ask you is your opinion on all of the controversy surrounding it is?

Dr. Rees: So, remember when that guy… Was that the guy that shot Lennon… shot John Lennon who had Catcher in the Rye with him?

Robert: Yeah

Dr. Rees: So, there’s that. That was unfortunate for obvious reasons, and then also the book’s got a lot of profanity in it, but in the same kind of ways that’s…

So there is a scene where Holden Caulfield imagines himself in a fight with these people. He hires this prostitute but he doesn’t actually, if you’ve read it..?

Max: I haven’t finished reading it.

Dr. Rees: He hires a prostitute, but he doesn’t actually do anything. And then the guys come and beat him up and that’s sort of it. But, he imagines himself shot in the stomach not himself shooting someone else.

When the word “fuck” appears later, he’s repulsed by it. Somebody’s written it on the wall in the elementary school and he’s disgusted. So, yes, it’s in there and he says “goddamn” all the time, but I feel like, as is so often the case, what happens is that when you take these things out of context and you say, “well, we don’t want people reading a book that has the word fuck in it” or “we don’t want people reading a book that has fantasizing about violence in it” that what you’re missing is “but what is it doing there?” If it’s just there to be titillating or to be shocking, then I can see why that might not be something you’re interest in. But, in that book, that’s not what it’s doing.

I think you can actually have… Well, I know, you can actually have really poignant conversations with young people about what it is that Holden Caulfield is so upset about, what it is that he’s so traumatized by. In part, it’s that his little brother has died and clearly no one has helped him deal with that, and so he’s obsessed with death. He’s terrified of getting older because that means death and he’s terrified of his little sister getting older because she might die as well. And he wants her to just stay on that merry-go-round forever because she never goes this way she’s just in a holding pattern. So, I feel like the unfortunate thing in the particular case of that book is that; yes, there’s profanity; yes, there’s images of violence; yes, there’s a lot of unpleasant stuff that happens. But it’s also kind of sexist in part, like it’s not… But all of those things in it are things that young people like to talk about and that you can have good conversations about. You can have really… Also, I’m sorry, but high school students have heard ‘fuck’ before. You’re not protecting them from anything, so, I mean, what’s the point?

Max: That’s fair.

04:27 Dr. Rees: I mean, I just don’t know. I always told my kid, “there’s no such thing as bad words”. There’s words that you can use to hurt people and when you use them to hurt people then you’re doing something bad, but the words- there’s no such thing as a bad word. There’s only context. I’ve never worried very much about profanity and I’ve taught high school students and they can handle it. They’re fine. They’ll giggle for a second, but then you move on. I mean, they mostly prefer to be treated like sensible humans as opposed to delicate flowers anyways, so they can talk about these issues. They can talk about what happens in that scene, where the prostitute comes to his room, and why it is that he’s so afraid of sex and because he associates it with getting older, with growing up and he’s really tall and he’s got the grey hair already. He’s sixteen and he’s already getting grey hair, and so he’s aging. Of course, what that represents is his emotional trauma. He’s not a vulgar person and he’s actually really sensitive. That’s part of his problem. I’m biased, of course, because I think I love that book, but I think not teaching anything because it has profanity in it is a mistake. It’s short sighted people say “there’s other stuff that we could use to talk about the same kinds of issues and not have to deal with the minefield of parents and whatever else, saying it’s got the word ‘fuck’ in it” or whatever, and I’m not unsympathetic to that argument. Demand… If you can find something that… Unless you talk about the same stuff and you don’t have to deal with that, then that may be smart, but there’s nothing wrong with that book.

It’s a good book and it resonates with young people because Holden is so upset about phoniness in particular and young people at that age are starting to look around and think, “am I being punked here?” I think that’s an important thing for them to think about. Why do I feel that way so often that the world is this combination of stuff that is being sort of forced on me and a lot of stuff that seems to serve other people and not me that I’m supposed to go along with. That one teacher tells him he’s got to learn how to play the game or whatever… I don’t want my life to be a game, I want it to be meaningful and- he doesn’t say it like that, but basically that’s his problem. When a game is an artifice that’s fake.

I don’t want that to be what life is. So, he keeps flunking out of school because this is just a bunch of nonsense that old people made up and said I have to do and I don’t know why I’m doing it, so why am I doing it? You know what I’m not going to. Is he a role model? I don’t know that I would try to make that case, but he’s an exemplar. He goes through things that real people go through. Adolescence is hard and I think it’s important for us to take that seriously and not just act like they need to suck it up and get over it. Am I helping?

09:02 Max: You had mentioned that you’ve taught high school, so at what age would you actually consider Catcher in the Rye to be an appropriate book for them to read? For people in general to read?

Dr. Rees: I can’t remember when I read it for the first time, but Holden is sixteen. I think that’s reasonable. I don’t know if I’d give it to a twelve-year-old, maybe a really mature, one who’s really a good reader, but likely not. Junior, senior in high school I think is totally appropriate because it’s about them. And, yeah, it’s from 1950. When was it published in 1950?

Max: 1951.

Dr. Rees: It’s in… it’s very urban, it’s a city kid. A lot of the language, even when I read it was unfamiliar to be in high school. Not the profanity, but the slang he uses some of it. I don’t think that’s a barrier to understanding any of it. If you think about what’s happening to you when you’re sixteen, seventeen years old, you’re getting close to graduating high school and you’re starting to think about leaving home for the first time for most people and his intense sort of neurosis and anxiety is really resonate. It was for me. I didn’t really have his problems, most of them, but I can remember reading that book and really, I think I was actually in high school or if I was recently out of high school… I saw all of that fear of leaving childhood and of leaving the garden and having to get expelled from the womb, however you want to talk about it.

That scene, he’s worried about the ducks, where do the ducks go when the ponds freeze and that sort of thing. He doesn’t want to mess up the snow in that one scene where he’s got a snowball and he’s going to throw it but everything looks so nice he doesn’t want to throw the snowball somewhere it’s going to mess up the snow. That sort of hypersensitivity really resonates with me. So, yeah, no, I don’t think it’s inappropriate for sixteen, seventeen, eighteen year old. I don’t know how much earlier than that I would go, but just because everybody talks about the profanity and the dead brother and the being disrespectful to his elders and that sort of thing, but the book is… I wouldn’t want people to read it before they understand how to read literature in that way, because the book has so much symbolism that it’s going to mean more to you if you know how to access that. That would be the kind of maturity that I would be interested in making sure people had before they read it, so you’re perfectly capable of thinking that way by the time you’re sixteen, seventeen.

Max: So, it was published in 51 and, from what we’ve gathered, it looks like from around 1960 to 1980 was just this giant hotspot for challenging and banning this book, especially in high schools. Do you know anything more about that or…?

Dr. Rees: Not really. I mean, it wasn’t assigned when I was in school, but you know we didn’t learn evolution in biology class either in Texas in the 80s. So, no I think it’s mostly surface stuff that gets it banned, not the ideas that it actually as in it. It’s mostly the profanity, and he does say goddamn a lot, and I’ve heard people say it’s not… I mean, part of the problem is that it’s first person, so, the only perspectives we get is his for the most part and the people he talks to, but also there’s the part with the teacher at the end. Sometimes people doesn’t love that, because it’s maybe homosexual or something but it seems to me it’s either laziness or over cautiousness- I’m not sure how you say that. If I can do something that won’t make all the parents mad at me, I’m just going to pick that instead of- which again, I’m not unsympathetic to.

15:39 The issue with the first person is that Holden is sometimes pretty eloquent but other times he sounds like a pissed off sixteen-year-old, which is what he is. Some people have argued that it’s better to expose budding literary scholars to more sort of elegant language that they can kind of- that it’s good for them to read that- better for them to read that than to read this kind of not so mature prose because of who this character is. I don’t really buy that because it’s not like this is the only thing that they would read. So, you can. And I think it’s good for them to get into the head of characters who are kind of jacked up like him. I don’t think anybody’s going to try to say that Holden- that anybody reads this and wants to be like him. I mean, he’s very sad and angry.

I don’t think he’s a hero. Maybe a sort of existential hero, but that’s not the same thing as an epic hero or something. I don’t know. But, my understanding of the banning and all of that is mostly: it’s people just being overcautious or just reacting to the surface instead of dealing with the ideas. I don’t think there’s anything the books says, as opposed to what Holden says, I don’t think there’s anything that the book means that I can remember people really objecting to. Unless the idea of adolescents having their own identity that may not be friendly toward status quo, which I guess that can be threatening. Again, he’s not very good at it. He’s so helpless, so passive, he can’t even make a fist as he broke his hand hitting the windows of the car after his brother died. He’s so passive, he’s… I just don’t know. He just doesn’t strike me as all that threatening. I think it’s just laziness for, again, people just not thinking it’s worth it to fight it, which happens.

Max: We’ve been asking everyone that we’ve interviewed a specific question because we’re kind of trying to measure- because, like with Catcher in the Rye, like with to Kill a Mockingbird, we know that they get challenged or banned, but we don’t always know specifics. The specific instance that we’re looking into is from Tulsa in 1960. Have you ever heard of the Tulsa teacher having issues in 1960 for assigning the book?

Dr. Rees: I think I did see that. Somebody fought it, right? Obviously, this is before my time, but I think I do remember reading that. Somebody assigned it and got in trouble for it and refused to back down, at least at first, I don’t remember how it turned out, but that’s what I remember.

Robert: We’ve read conflicting accounts that either the teacher got fired or she resigned from the position afterwards.

Dr. Rees: Interesting. Sometimes, you know, we can be like that. Sometimes we’ll just be like “Whatever, these people, I don’t want to deal with them”, but… But other times, if you really think it’s important you might stick to your guns. So, it doesn’t surprise me that somebody did because somebody always does.

Max: As a literature researcher… the biggest discrepancy between accounts that we’re finding is between newspapers and official record. So, when you’re looking through history books and things like that, there’s two separate accounts. The newspapers say the instructor quit. The history books say the instructor was fired. Which of those sources would you be more likely to trust in trying to piece together that sort of puzzle?

Dr. Rees: That’s a good question. I have no idea. Can you not contact the school district?

Max: We have.

Dr. Rees: And they didn’t want to talk about it.

Max: They’ve cooperated for the most part, the difficulty is that Tulsa’s challenging process starts with the instructor and then moves to the principal and the superintendent who don’t have to keep minutes of their meetings. It’s just wiped out from that point

Dr. Rees: Does it matter? I mean, really, ultimately, because a lot of people who were given the opportunity to quit instead of being fired. My guess would be it was something like that. Like, “listen, these parents are going to burn this place to the ground if we don’t let you go one way or the other. Do you want to keep your pension and, you know, your Cobra opportunity?” I don’t know what was going on in sixty, but you know what I mean. That happens in all kinds of different venues that someone will come to you and say “look, you can either quiet or you can make us fire you, what do you want to do”. So, if she quit, it was probably because somebody said, “you want to quit, or do you want us to fire you?” That would be my guess.

Max: I guess that’s all the questions I can think of. Do you have any? No? Was there anything else you want to put out there or tell us about it or just in general?

23:15 Dr. Rees: I don’t think so. It’s a lovely book. It’s an upsetting book. If you don’t want to give your students upsetting things to read, then I wouldn’t pick it, but I’m not sure you’re doing them any favors by doing that. Really, I love that book. I can talk the book for however long you want me to but it’s not super- like, I didn’t read it in grad school. It’s not something that you see literary big wigs talking about much at all, which is kind of interesting because I think it’s really smart. But, it’s mostly relegated to the… like it’s a high school reading. Which is kind of ironic in that it’s the high schools who are the ones who were like “no, I don’t want to read that.” So, who does read it becomes the question, right? I guess you’re supposed to let your parents give it like condoms, like sex ed, so, there you go.

Max: Thank you very much for-

Dr. Rees: Compared to other things, it’s not that violent like Hunger Games or even Lord of the Rings. Nothing happens. The kind of interesting thing in Catcher in the Rye is that almost nothing happens. You’re just up in his head all the time and he’s fucked up. So, it’s going to be a weird experience, but it doesn’t hurt anybody.

Max: Thank you.

Dr. Rees: You’re welcome.