And Also, I Hate Holden Caulfield

Adapted from a rant posted elsewhere.

Actually, Holden Caulfield, who is somewhere between Thomas Covenant and Elric of Melnibone on my Least Favorite Male Character Ever List doesn’t have a lot to do with this post. Instead, I’m going to talk about Earth Abides, and why I hated the protagonist Isherwood Williams on sight. (The book itself I’m largely ambivalent about, but I know that I despise the protagonist.)

Earth Abides is a post-apocalyptic novel involving a plague that Destroys Civilization. Our protagonist it one of the few survivors, and he is supposed to be a very intelligent loner type. He wanders around meeting people and inevitably feeling superior to them because they do not have his highly evolved brain and motivation to better themselves that he does. The problem is that he is not actually that smart, and he is a dick.

Our Iconoclastic Loner Hero is wandering around looking for some sign of civilization. He finds a black couple who have liberated food, supplies and livestock from an abandoned farm and are attempting to make a life for themselves in the aftermath of a devastating civilization destroying plague. As you do in such situations. Isherwood treats the couple with contempt (despite their being friendly and hospitable), and thinks about how inherently sneaky and slavish black people are. He doesn’t stay with the black couple, though he does think of how easy it would be to control them.

Here’s a few other key moments.

  • When his new girlfriend confesses to passing for white, he starts listing all the things that “should have” been obvious to him, such as her physical appearance and her “placid, incurious nature.” (Our Iconoclastic Hero is a great believer in inherent racial traits.)
  • When a community begins to take form, he is contemptuous of most of the people there, because they lack his education, or aren’t interested in the things that he’s interested in.
  • When one of his kids DOES show an interest in the things he’s interested in, he discourages the kid from reading (Stating that the kid should start slow, and only read books Ish approves of)–despite a stated desire on Isherwood’s part to teach the kid.
  • He spends a great deal of time whining about how no one seems interested in being independent/create/rebuild but doesn’t seem to make a real effort to teach or instruct.
  • His theories for why no one is interested generally ranges between “Well, they’re still in shock” to “They are stupid/placid/stolid.” At no point does he go “Hey, maybe no one wants to listen to me because I’m an asshole!”

I felt absolutely no sympathy for the guy. I would have preferred a book where Emma becomes a community leader and helps rebuild civilization. Instead, I get a whiny jerk who spends most of his time complaining because no one listens to him. (Hint: no one listens to you because you are a jerk. Why the writer decided that you would become a cultural hero/god, I have no clue.) I mostly ended up reading the book for Emma and the little essays about the next technological feature that is destroyed by time.



Filed under apocalyptic, Meta, race/ethnicity issues, Ramble, science fiction

9 responses to “And Also, I Hate Holden Caulfield

  1. WCG

    Wow! I need to re-read Earth Abides sometime, because I don't remember any of that, Rena. Of course, it's been decades since I read the book. But I know a lot of people who are just crazy about it.I will point out that Earth Abides was written in the 1940s. I don't know about you, but I'm willing to give it a little slack for that reason – something I would not do for a more modern book. But I really don't remember those parts of it.Well, as I say, it's been a long time.Oh, and I never had a problem with Holden Caulfield either, although I haven't read Catcher in the Rye since… before you were born, I suspect. But maybe I can redeem myself a bit if I admit sharing your dislike of Thomas Covenant? 🙂 (My memory of Elric of Melnibone is too vague for me to remember what I thought about him.)

  2. Hn. It pretty much jumped out at me, but then it's something I tend to be hyper-aware of. I was all ready aware that the book was written in the 1940s. The fact that it's a given that sf written prior to the 1960s (and even after, I've seen some real doozies even recently) will be racist does not prevent me from going out "Oh, hey, look at the racism…wow, that's blatant." Followed shortly by "wow, this guy's a dick." I never give a book slack based on age except in special cases (I don't mind of a book from the 1800s to the 1930s gets science wrong for example)–and you've illustrated why. "Oh well, things were like that back then." is the sort of statement that leads to the false statement of "It's not like that now," which is untrue. "Not as bad as" is not the same as "better than it was" or "doesn't exist anymore because we are all Enlightened and not Racist Dipshits." Also, this is why you don't remember the Eugenics/racist statements: because you dismissed them as unimportant because after all, this was written in the 1940s. Ish is so obviously set up as the Misunderstood Iconoclast that he isn't even an interesting Misunderstood Iconoclast and I kept wanting to go "Look dude, no one is paying attention to you because you have the leadership skills of a constipated bear."

  3. Earth Abides is one of my favorite books and I would rank it in the top 10 of all time science fiction books. But I can accept your criticisms, although for 1949 Earth Abides would be liberal for its times. You should read more books from that time period to judge it more fairly.However, let me recommend an experiment. If you can remember, reread Earth Abides again after you've turned 50 or 60. It's quite a beautiful book, and maybe you will see something different on your second reading.

  4. Jim: I started out reading books and short stories from this time period: most of the sf at the library where I grew up was very "old stuff"–Asimov, Bradbury, Sturgeon, Heinlein, Merril, Henderson, Norton. Don't assume I don't know what I'm talking about, or that I haven't read older works. I expect writers from that general time period to Do it Wrong when it comes to gender, sexuality and race. I feel that making an "excuse" for a work with racist elements implies a false sense of superiority. The "well that never happens now, it's just a product of its time" meme is what causes a) People who are aware of continuing racism to be annoyed and b) People who are under the impression that "it never happens anymore" to be defensive when their argument is pulled out from under them. I can admit that some of the images of destruction as buildings and dams collapse is strangely beautiful. I utterly adore Emma and wish she'd been given a stronger role or a pov. Ish however is an absolute jerk, and I couldn't stand him. I will probably continue to dislike him a great deal even if I were eighty, for roughly the same reason I despise Holden Caulfield. I will also still want to hit the writer with a brick concerning the future-tribe he describes that is growing cotton as a sacrificial offering of some sort, instead of you know, for clothing.

  5. I didn't mean SF novels, they rarely dealt with race. I meant mainstream novels of the times, ones that would reflect the thinking of the people of the day. Constant racism of all kinds was just part of their world. I'm not making excuses for them, I'm just saying you would probably hate everyone back then. What you have to look for is signs of change, to find people who were starting to think different.Isherwood is a failure, and he comes to know it, and even accept it. What Stewart was saying was civilization is a thin veneer and if it collapses it would be very hard to rebuild.We the readers like to think as we're reading the book we'd know how to rebuild civilization, but I think Stewart is right, without the infrastructure it would be damn hard to pass on to the next generation.Isherwood is a very human character with lots of flaws and failures. But he's trying.

  6. You are talking about a science fiction book. If you talk about a science fiction book and I am thinking mostly about science fiction and fantasy books, you are going to get examples that are generally science fiction authors, and not say, Dashielle Hammet. (Actually, all books regardless of genre within a time period addresses, parodies or reflects the cultural norms of the time period. So yes, sf novels of the period deal with race even if it is by not mentioning race.) Even if I read a lot of mainstream novels from that time period, there would be characters/stories I liked or characters I disliked, regardless of the "inherent for the time period" racism, ableism, sexism of the writer. Being aware of the "inherent racism, ableism, sexism etc of the time period" and pointing it out does not mean I will not read the book or that I will automatically not like any of the characters because of the "inherent racism, sexism, ableism of the time period." I am not sure where you got the idea that I would avoid a book because of the "inherent racism, sexism, ableism of the time period." Except in cases where the writer is overtly and obnoxiously racist, (as opposed to merely ignorant of his or her "inherent racism") I am more likely to not read something because of the genre than because of the time period. (I have only occasional interests outside my favorite genres.) At no point did I previously state that I would avoid a book because of the time period it was written in. Pointing out inherent racism (of a writer within a time period) is not the same as not reading because of the time period.Even if I read a whole bunch of mainstream novels from the period and came back to Earth Abides, I would still dislike Isherwood for the approximate reason that I dislike like Holden Caulfield. ((We the readers like to think as we're reading the book we'd know how to rebuild civilization, but I think Stewart is right, without the infrastructure it would be damn hard to pass on to the next generation.))…You do realize that a good percentage of most disaster novels address the entire "infrastructure collapse is bad," right? Even the more optimistic ones? How would it be possible for a reader to miss "infrastructure collapse is bad?" Why are you pretending that the point of "infrastructure collapse is bad" would not be obvious to the reader?

  7. I don't think you're supposed to like Holden Caulfield, you're supposed to feel sorry for him. He's a mentally ill kid having a nervous breakdown. Catcher in the Rye is a monologue of that collapse. It's a literary tour de force.Although Earth Abides uses a science fiction concept, it wasn't a science fiction novel, but a mainstream novel. I can accept you not liking it, but I think the reasons you gave are unfair criticism. I don't think Isherwood is as racist as you suggest, and you are ignoring his efforts to see beyond the beliefs of his day.Also, you are missing the whole point of the story. It's not that collapse is bad, which it obviously is, just look at the news about Japan. The story is about how hard it would be to rebuild civilization. I think Stewart had some great philosophical insights and few people think about them other than when they read Earth Abides. Most people consider this book a masterpiece.By the way, have you read King Dork by Frank Portman? He makes quite an attack on Catcher in the Rye and other classic books of the baby boomer generation. It's quite funny.

  8. It's a science fiction novel. See, if someone is using science fiction-type ideas it's a science fiction novel. If someone is including fantasy elements, it's is a fantasy novel. If someone says they are not writing a science fiction or fantasy novel when quite clearly they are in fact writing a science fiction or fantasy novel, they are silly because they are scared of being labeled as science fiction. So therefore, someone who protests that a science fiction novel is in fact a mainstream novel because it was published as a mainstream novel despite the clear presence of science fiction elements (which would be a big clue that the work was a science fiction novel. You see: science fiction elements=science fiction. Don't be scared, science fiction will not give you cooties!) Then that person is being silly, nit-picking, or both.Now I'm trying to figure out why you are so invested in my agreeing with you, and so far I'm coming up with nothing. You don't acknowledge or anything I've written as a valid argument, and most of your argument involves the belief that I'm being too mean to your book which you apparently like. (Which I can understand emotionally since quite a few people hate books I like, love or at least appreciate, but you are belaboring the point and now the poor thing is cowering in a corner and whimpering "please gods make it stop." Stop committing point abuse, it didn't do anything to you.)

  9. Interesting debate! I will point out that for Catcher in the Rye I have to agree with Rena. (I haven't read Earth Abides, so I can't comment on Isherwood.) While Caulfield is supposed to be someone we feel sorry for, my own reaction was one of visceral loathing. Mentally ill, yes, breakdown, yes – all normally things that would indeed lead me to feel at least a level of sympathy for a character – yet I despise Caulfield. I cannot feel anything more sympathetic than a vague, disgusted pity.Perhaps I'm not the right sort of person to read it, or any of the great classics. While I may get back to them at some point, far too many basically seem to boil down to the same point: "There was once something wonderful, but we destroyed it." Frankly, at this point, it's gotten quite tedious… and I've gotten far off the subject, so I'll end here.

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