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Local author Pam Steinle grapples with the american adolescent character
By: Aimee Greenberg

The Laguna Beach Coastline News, January 19, 2001

Pamela Hunt Steinle’s seminal work with the post-war American character and adolescent engagement in school shootings and recreational media ranks high among the jargon-filled journals and essays written on the influence of media in today’s popular culture. Her first book, In Cold Fear explores the censorship controversies over J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as a cross-cultural American debate. Steinle chose this particular controversy in an attempt to try to define what is truly American or "un-American". She also wanted to integrate post-war research within an oral history framework. Presenting Catcher as a prompt, assessment or Rorschach test, In Cold Fear follows the debate in interviews, public media, letters and verbatim school board meetings from 1953 to the present, in Alabama, California, New Mexico and Virginia. In interviewing educators, ministers, librarians and parents, Steinle avoided focused questioning and primarily asked what offended them and why they responded against or in favor of censorship. At one point during the fifty-year time span, virtually every American community has been affected by this controversy. "It is a controversy fraught with intense emotional involvement; one person suffered a heart-attack, one couple a divorce during the debate," said Steinle.

So, what’s so threatening about Catcher in the Rye, that distinguishes it as one of the most frequently taught and frequently censored post-war novels? Steinle says: "The book depicts the ideals of paradigmatic success, with all its hope and potential, while simultaneously, through the voice of Holden, the book is a strong critique of the American dream; the spiritual void, divorce, adultery and despair." At the heart of the argument lies the question of whether or not adolescents need to be exposed to the dark side of the dream before their time. At the heart of Steinle’s questioning lies a much darker side of humanity rooted in the fear of the threat of nuclear annihilation. At the brink of this revelation, those teachers and librarians whose mission was to prepare students for their adult role, faced an internal crisis in the form of the question: "Am I preparing them for nuclear annihilation?"

Steinle’s work on In Cold Fear motivated her research for the Paper: "Adolescent Assassinations: The School Shootings as Emergent Cultural Ritual," presented at an American Studies Conference in Michigan in October of last year. Some of the data included the review of specific postings of Eric Harris, one of the two perpetrators in the Littleton killings. Harris made explicit references to the "atomic blast," as well as fragments of lyrics by KMFDM. Literary critics have even gone so far as to decode Harris’s writings and language as "Holdenese." When asked if Pamela viewed Catcher in the Rye as a catalyst for the school shootings, she responded with the following: "Adolescents choose to engage in certain activities. Instead of blaming video or alternative music, I think we should take it as a clue and investigate why these words and images are speaking to these kids." Steinle makes a definite distinction between the narratives carried forth in audio and visual formats as an expression of teenage angst rather than the catalyst for the real time shootings. Pamela’s immersion into the adolescent character has led her back home to an ethnographic work-in-progress with Laguna Beach high school students. The local setting was selected because of strikingly similar demographic parallels. Many of the students have expressed a kinship with the anarchy and emptiness portrayed in films like American Beauty and the lyrics of Pearl Jam, KMFDM and Bizkit. Luckily, the students have also admitted to knowing the difference between relating to these feelings versus acting out.

I asked Pamela Steinle, author and Professor of American Studies at Cal State Fullerton in what direction the adolescent American character is headed.

I think that while the subject/topics of my work often cause me to be immersed in a pretty bleak world of angst and nihilism, I do take heart and find hope in the actual character of the adolescents I’ve listened to. I find their engagement in bleak or nihilistic narratives is an act of verification of onlyone side of their worldview, the other being quite resilient adolescent optimism.

And, what motivates her towards this particular field of research?

I think that as a professor but also as a participant in post-war American culture, and more specifically, participating as a parent of an adolescent, what concerns me or drives me in my own work is the increasing difficulty for professional-class Americans, to gain a sense of meaning in their lives, something that gives meaning to our individual identity that is larger than what we own or consume. This ambiguous sense of purpose, is recognized or felt by our adolescents; leading to their engagement in nihilistic narratives, and we need to face this.