Reading for UConn Reads

By Anne D'Alleva

Explore the world of classic fiction and participate in the selection process for UConn Reads 2012-13 with Anne D'Alleva, Associate Professor of Art History and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Chair of the UConn Reads Steering Committee.

Booklist Sneak Peek #3: The Coming-of-Age Story

A coming-of-age story focuses on the protagonist’s journey toward adulthood, toward social, emotional, and moral maturity and finding a place in the world. It’s a genre with a lot of resonance for the UConn community, which includes a large population of young adults, and not surprisingly, the UConn Reads nomination list includes several classic examples.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) is one of the best known examples and has received several nominations. Holden Caulfield is an icon of teenage angst and rebellion. The book is a flashback in which Caulfied talks about running away from his boarding school to spend a few days alone in New York City. The book is provocative and complex, and I can imagine lots of discussions organized around key themes and issues: alienation as self-protection; the pain of maturation; innocence and deception; the vulnerability that marks the desire to be a hero; the urban landscape.

The Catcher in the Rye, first edition cover

Critics have often pointed out the ways that The Catcher in the Rye has influenced other books, from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) to Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero (1985), and it might be exciting to cluster other readings around our main book selection. We could also do a lot with music. The Beastie Boys, Indochine, Green Day, Komeda are just a few examples of groups with songs that reference Salinger and his book. However, we would not be able to screen a film version of The Catcher in the Rye – Salinger never sold the screen rights to the book, a policy that his heirs have continued since his death in 2010.

I do hesitate, though, because many high school English classes assign this book – it is simultaneously one of the most frequently assigned and frequently banned books in the United States – so could it be overly familiar to the UConn community? I read The Catcher in the Rye in my twenties, not in high school, and don’t associate it with any kind of collective reading experience, so it might work better for me as focus for UConn Reads than most people…

If The Catcher in the Rye is a classic of twentieth century literature, it’s important to remember that the genre has a long history, and its modern roots can be traced to eighteenth-century literature. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, by Henry Fielding (1749) is a great example and one of the first novels in English literature. Tom Jones is kind-hearted and honest, if over-sexed and thoughtless. He finally matures into a responsible adult through the love of the virtuous Sophia Western. Here we would have a rollicking film version to screen, starring Albert Finney. It won four academy awards in 1963 and was one of the most popular films of its time.

Movie poster for Tom Jones

Another great eighteenth-century novel in this tradition is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, first published in 1795-96. The story centers upon Wilhelm’s journey of self-realization as he tries to escape life as a conventional businessman through involvement with the theater and the mysterious Tower Society.

There’s a wonderful term for the coming-of-age story in German literature: the Bildungsroman, or ‘novel of formation.” In the German tradition, the Bildungsroman is further defined into several types. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), another UConn Reads nominee, is a Künstlerroman, a novel about the formation of an artist. Joyce’s novel traces the artistic, spiritual, and intellectual awakening of Stephen Dedalus, a young writer who chafes against the Roman Catholic and Irish values that marked his childhood. Dedalus finally leaves Ireland to live abroad, free himself from conventions, and devote himself to writing.

Is the coming-of-age story a natural pick for UConn Reads? Please feel free to share your thoughts here or nominate a book at the UConn Reads website.