Sometimes we look back to childhood with nostalgic longing. We relish in simple times when life consisted of ice cream and swing sets. Often our grandparents will say the same about the "good old times" before high taxes, texting, and terrorism. But as much as we may mourn our loss of innocence, both as an individual and as a nation, and fear for that of our prodigy, growing up involves positive change that outweighs death and taxes. The loss of innocence of two American classic adolescent protagonists parallels America's own coming of age in the 50s and 60s, a topic that will more than likely pop up on the AP US History Exam.
In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield's fear of change leaves him a state of limbo. He fears the complexities of growing up, and sees the world in simple terms: childhood is a blissful romp in a field of rye with a lake where ducks never migrate, and adulthood is a mixed up establishment of phony pretensions. By alienating himself from others and flunking out of school, Holden believes he is evading the "phoniness" around him. However, in reality, he is descending deeper into a dark hole of loneliness and depression. His denial of reality and idyllic role as catcher in the rye, an illusory figure who prevents children from losing their innocence, leads him to a psychiatric ward.
J.D. Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, a time when the US itself was bound in a straight jacket by Cold War paranoia; it could essentially be characterized as a nation of psychiatric patients suffering from repression. Like Holden, America's fear of communism catapulted the country into a state of terror-stricken paralysis and prejudiced uniformity. The fear of the "Reds" led to blacklisting and atomic testing, which caused radiation leaks that were destroying the nation from within. Taught to follow the motto "Father Knows Best" (the title of a family sitcom in the 50s), children in a sense were not allowed to grow up. Just as internal conflict plagues Holden, the nation’s own anxieties were destroying society, much more so than a menacing “other.”
In the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout also fears a phantom, but by the end of the novel, discovers that the monster in the closet is a kindhearted recluse. Her father Atticus does not harshly insist he knows best, but rather acts as role model and sage to his young daughter, who is coming of age in a racist, pre-Civil Rights south. As Atticus fights discrimination at court, Scout's ignorant fear of her neighbor Boo transforms into kindhearted understanding.
Because both novels came out before Civil Rights and the liberal counterculture movement, they were both criticized at the time of their release. While Holden in one sense represents Cold War paranoia, in another, his alienation from society symbolizes 60s rebellion. When the novel was published in 1951, it was strictly censored for its profanity and explicit description of sexuality, two things 1950s conservative America would not tolerate. Although certainly not indicative of a university activist, Holden in many ways is a symbol of 1960s counterculture, a movement in which youth, alienated by their parents' conservative politics, separated themselves from the rest of society. Conversely, To Kill A Mockingbird was criticized for being too moralizing, since it advocated civil rights for African Americans. These opposite reactions indicate the ignorance and hypocrisy of a nation before it lost its innocence and came of age in the tumultuous 1960s.