The Catcher in the Rye, JD and Me

Long, long ago, when I was deeply enmeshed in the process of college applications, an interviewer from a certain school asked me which book that I had enjoyed the most in high school English. I thought about it for a second, trying to determine which answer would be the most impressive, and eventually just said The Catcher in the Rye. As soon as I said it, the interviewer spat out, “I hated that book.” I didn’t get in to the school.

J.D. Salinger’s classic novel is oddly polarizing. There is, quite famously, a large group of Holden Caulfield devotees. People relate to that character in a way that goes much deeper than most people usually relate to literature; the extent to which Caulfield’s alienation resonates with readers is almost frighteningly tragic.

And yet reactions like the one offered by my interviewer are not uncommon. Some people—a minority, but a surprisingly vocal one—simply do not understand the fuss over Salinger’s most famous work. They find the whole story to be solipsistic and self-indulgent. A high school history teacher of mine once felt the need to declare his hatred of the book without provocation. And his criticism was emblematic of what most of the book’s critics think: “I thought Holden Caulfield was whiny and self-centered. He didn’t remind me of me or anyone I knew.”

As for Caulfield being “whiny and self-centered,” well, that’s the fucking point. With The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger more or less invented the concept of “young adult fiction,” because most young adults are whiny and self-centered—and Salinger captured the tone of that perfectly. In a letter making the rounds in the wake of his death, Salinger called the part of Holden Caulfield “essentially unactable”:

“The weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener, his asides about gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons—in a word, his thoughts.”

And this is precisely right. Holden Caulfield is The Catcher in the Rye more than maybe any other protagonist defines a novel. The plot and secondary characters only matter to us because of how Holden perceives and relays them. This is what makes the book so enriching. Salinger was able to grasp something about the psyche of young people that no writer had ever done so well before.

As for my high school teacher’s claim that “he didn’t remind me of me or anyone I knew”—I simply find this absurd. Holden Caulfield reminded me of everyone I knew. The contradictory elements of misanthropy and idealism, or innocence, were a revelation to me. In fact, I so completely bought into what Caulfield represented that it wasn’t even until my second time through the novel that I realized the extent to which Caulfield was a classic unreliable narrator.

The second time I read the novel was for 11th grade English, and I remember my teacher explaining that the central image of the novel—the image of Holden doing the only thing he’d really like to do, saving small children from falling off the cliffs of a rye field—comes from the Robert Burns poem, “Comin’ Through the Rye.” Except, she explained, the poem has nothing to do with that. Holden has misheard the words of a poem about two lovers meeting in the rye. This is, of course, perfectly representative of the entire novel. Throughout the story, Holden gets things wrong, but his spirit and intentions always seem right. He misinterprets and misunderstands so many things—his disastrous encounter with the prostitute, his aborted stay at Mr. Antolini’s, his request to run away with Sally Hayes—but always out of naiveté and his quixotic disposition.

This is what makes the story so heartbreaking. Two images in particular have always stood out as particularly tragic to me. The first comes when Holden is carrying the gift he bought for his little sister Phoebe, a record called “Little Shirley Beans”:

“Then something terrible happened just as I got into the park. I dropped old Phoebe’s record. It broke into about fifty pieces. It was in a big envelope and all, but it broke anyway. I damn near cried, it made me feel so terrible, but all I did was, I took the pieces out of the envelope and put them in my coat pocket. They weren’t good for anything, but I didn’t feel like throwing them away.”

It’s a small, simple description of what is, certainly, a minor tragedy. But Salinger does such a good job of showing that, within Holden’s narrow worldview, this minor tragedy is truly “something terrible.” There is something so poignant about Holden’s futile attempt to pick up all the pieces, even while admitting that they “weren’t good for anything.”

The second image that has always stuck with me occurs towards the end of the novel, when Holden is waiting for Phoebe, so he can tell her about his plan to run away and live in seclusion. While waiting in the stairwell of her school, he finds something written on the wall:

“But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written ‘Fuck you’ on the wall. It drove me damn crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them…what it meant, and how they’d think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it…I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I’d smash his head on the stone steps till he was good and goddam dead and bloody. But I knew, too, I wouldn’t have the guts to do it. I knew that.”

This scene is a much more mundane, relatable example of the rye story of the book’s title. It’s just a simple desire to preserve innocence, and protect kids from the corruption and sullying of the outside world. But it’s so depressingly futile, as later Caulfield sees another “Fuck you” engraved in the wall: “If you had a million years, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world. It’s impossible.” This is what motivates the despair and rage that fills Holden. The bloody image of Holden murdering the culprit of this petty vandalism is very dark, but it’s a darkness that comes from a faith in purity and a doomed hope to keep out the evils of the world.

Salinger obviously knew something about this. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, it’s easy to understand why Salinger would want to live his life in seclusion.* There is obviously something romantic about the way Holden Caulfield—and Holden’s creator—viewed the withdrawal from everyday life. It is, after all, a life in which you don’t have see any “Fuck you” signs.

*The media’s obsession with Salinger’s seclusion is actually far more interesting to me than the seclusion itself. It’s as if the desire to be left alone and not be haunted by the questions and attention that come with fame is so unfathomable to people that we are willing to ascribe all sorts of disorders and perversions to somebody just because he doesn’t want to be famous.

It’s easy to forget, as I did until Salinger’s death inspired me to revisit the novel, that The Catcher in the Rye actually has a rather optimistic ending, considering the circumstances. In the last chapter, Holden watches Phoebe, his ideal of innocence and purity, go around a carousel:

“I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.”

His reaction shows that Holden’s brand of idealism is susceptible to extremes of not just despair, but also joy. The little things, like a broken record, a little graffiti, or an afternoon on a merry-go-round, can be the difference between hope and despair. Salinger’s grasp of that is why his writing resonates with so many people and why, even though he stopped publishing 45 years ago, his death still makes people all over the world mourn. Thinking about the importance of such a voice only makes his death and his seclusion seem that much more tragic. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] surprisingly, John S and Tim aren’t the only ones to eulogize J.D. Salinger this week. Among our favorites working […]

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