Each individual inherently possesses innocence, which will remain unaffected until challenged by the difficulties in maturation. Innocence, marked by purity and fragility, plays a crucial role in growth. J.D Salinger, Tony Earley and Betty Smith write on behalf of this importance. Through the depiction of the protagonist’s lifestyle and progressions through life, these authors are able to capture the essence of American individualism as well as the virtues of innocence.
The development of the United States was based on ideals of opportunity and freedom. From the founding of Jamestown to the modern era of the 21st century Americans intrinsically persevere to achieve the utmost potential. Many Europeans came to this land in hope of a fresh start to stand or fall on their own merits. The American Revolution highlights this sense of individualism. It not only was a refusal to accept authority it perpetuated the idea of a free individual. The possibilities and the infinitude of human capability in every American seemed undoubtedly endless. It is best put by Eric C. Mount, “Nothing is more American than individualism” (Mount 363).
The process of growth involves countless experiences, both good and bad, which shape a person’s character. The world is full of unknown items. Experience makes some of those unknowns become a little more familiar. The more familiar the world seems the greater the burden of knowledge becomes. This loss of innocence points out the security held within it, “growing up spoiled a lot of things” (Smith 214).
The inability to realize or comprehend aspects of the world allows for a lessened occurrence of complication. Dealing with this double sided force proves difficult. The puritans, in nineteenth century America, as pointed out by Joseph F. Kett, have a “tendency toward preserving juvenile innocence rather than stimulating children to imitate adults” (Kent 286). The presence of innocence is crucial, yet its loss is expected. This loss creates for an individual, a free spirit.
Many times the development of a personage takes the advice and guidance of those who have obtained some level of wisdom. In Tony Earley’s, Jim the Boy, Jim Glass faces the daunting task of maturing without a father. His three adored uncles assume the position of a father figure. Three strong and resilient farmers teach Jim the ways of success, “Hard work will grow hair on your chest” (Earley 27). Work and chest hair symbolizes a sense of maturity. The uncles are insinuating the need for Jim to grow up and become a man. Similarly, in Betty Smith’s A tree grows in Brooklyn, Francie Nolan faces the urgency of maturity. Her mother clearly emphasizes this fact, “besides, she said to her conscience, it’s a hard bitter world. They’ve got to live in it. Let them get hardened young to take care of themselves” (Smith 142). This advice or any advice acts as a means to aid in the finding of success.
Each person determines the meaning and source of success. In its pursuit individuality is found. Success, with great frequency, can be at times extremely fulfilling or daunting. Francie Nolan, the protagonist in A tree grows in Brooklyn, is lured by beauties of success.
Growing up poor Francie developed a need for wonder and knowledge. Success in her terms came in the form of experience, “… let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one piece of living is ever lost” (Smith 413). While Francie is able to see the brighter aspect of achievement, Holden Caulfield observes its darker side. Holden, the protagonist in J.D. Salinger’s the Catcher in the Rye, becomes troubled by the complexity of success. Although success is possible, not all are able to conquer it, “game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, alright—I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hotshots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game” (Salinger 8). This polarity creates great anxiety for those facing it.
As growth progresses the necessity for success becomes much greater. Respectively, there is an expected level of reluctance to mature or progress in order to avoid the complications of achieving success. Holden Caulfield experiences this reluctance to a great extent. Holden is unwilling to give up his own innocence or allow others to, as expressed by James Bryan, “…
Holden is hypersensitive to the explorations and insensibility of the post pubescent and the fragile innocent children” (Bryan 1065). The world is discouraging, and often to counter its challenges a cynical outlook is assumed. Holden Caulfield does just this in his description of the world: its full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everyday sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques (Salinger 131).
Growth and maturation brings many changes, accepting and facing those changes are what prove difficult.
Most feelings of discontent and anger at some level arise out of a lack of control. When Jim Glass was visiting a new town, “two thoughts came to Jim at once, joined by a thread of amazement: he thought, People live here, and he thought, They don’t know who I am” (Earley 53). Growing up and facing new environments can be very wearying. Just like nature, growth and maturity are forever changing and rebuilding, “a new tree had grown from the stump and its trunk had grown along the ground until it reached a place where there were no wash lines above it” (Smith 483). Just like the tree, a person’s maturity grows off of and is protected by those who have already experienced life’s hardships.
The protectorates of innocence at some point are disabled and innocence is left to fend for itself. The guardians either escape or innocence catches up with maturity. At some point an individual feels the desire to move on and rid themselves of their boundaries. This often occurs between a parent and her child. Katie Nolan speaks directly to this exact issue: “ It’s came at least…the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache… they walk out in all innocence and they walk right into the grief that you’d give your life to spare them” (Smith 453). American has been accustomed to this sense of individualism. The British were in the same position as Katie Nolan concerning the American Revolution. The parents of rebelling children in the 1960’s felt the same way. It seems to be a recurring theme in America for its people to be expressive and find their own individualistic spirit.
Even in the face of great misery and mishap, like the Vietnam War, American individualism perseveres. Not through complaint, rather through perseverance and courage. Jim Glass lives in a town recently introduced to electricity and even Jim, a boy of ten years of age, realizes the town will “require a different kind of boy to live in it—a boy smarter and stronger and braver than Jim knew he was” (Earley 149). American people will willingly free themselves of innocence to find their own self, and succeed.
Horatio Alger talks of a self- made man, which directly correlates to the desire of success and great achievement in the United States of America. Eric C. Mount writes on account of the myth of a self-made man:
The myth of the individual moving away from family and social roots to mature by standing alone as he makes a series of free, individualistic choices. And, finally, one can easily note the individualistic bias in the popular ideolology of the seventies, the “me decade, of preoccupation with personal self-actualization (Mount 364).
Innocence plays two main roles in the individualistic spirit of America. It protects and provides an environment for proper nourishment in facing challenges, challenges of wealth, success, and happiness. The loss of innocence is vital in successfully facing those challenges.
Everyone starts out an infant. A newborn is incapable of survival and requires the assistance of others. This is innocence in its purest form. If that innocence is not nurtured for, it will most likely not be able to carry on, discounting the few exceptions. Every country and every person possess the same innocence just as every American does. America is special in that it willingly hands over its innocence for the sake of individuality. Other nations are more susceptible to conformity and structure. This is seen through the prevalence of socialist and communist societies. American is truly a “free land,” both in spirit and mind. The American spirit has been a powerful influence all over the world. The sacrifice of innocence in search of a great individualist spirit is what drives and sustains a great power, the United States of America.
Bryan, James. “The Psychological Structure of the Catcher in the Rye.” PLMA. Vol. 89. 5.1974.
1065-1074. JSTOR. 22 Apr. 2008 <http://www.jstor.org/