The Catcher in The Rye by J.D. Salinger
Copyright Little Brown and Company 1991
This column focuses upon those books that have had a role in developing how we think about the world.
In my particular experience they tend to be novels, with a book of poems or nonfiction work on intellectual history thrown in. But by and large I have lived my ‘life of the mind’ through Fiction—a misnomer if there ever were one. What this implies is that I prefer fantasy to reality. Rather, I find more reality in what are essentially stories, than I do in factual accounts, because a novel involves a degree of artifice, whereas a newspapers or history books present facts, but mask their intentions by what they specifically say. The novel speaks about the world; about the minds of men and women, children, sometimes animals; about landscape and climate; history and memory; while at the same time also presenting facts and poetry in the service of truth.
Each novel has in turn its own truth, characterized by the author’s choice of language used to depict characters, find their voices, and carry the plot forward. I can think of few novels that I read during my youth that carried more emotional weight than J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It is an extremely banal story told by a seventeen-year-old home for the holidays and waiting to tell his parents that he has been expelled from yet another prep school. We have him in various experiences meeting up with girls he knows, getting drunk, and taking cabs everywhere. Banal action combined with active reflection is in fact the hallmark of the accepted literary masterpiece, for even though events may not seem special, it is the person involved in them who compels us, and how the accrual of emotional responses they have to such events produces an emotional response that forces them to interact either with the social dynamic inherent in their surroundings, or the regard for truth in themselves. The process of self-recognition lends even the most ignorant of souls through a continuum of revelation.
Much of what we need to know of our protagonist is limited by his vocabulary, but even at that level, he tells us about his frame of mind in every phrase. There are facts that he announces about his family despite his initial unwillingness to do so. One assumes these are the facts he cares about. He has an old brother named D.B. who writes terrific short stories but who sold himself out by moving to Hollywood to write screenplays. He had a brother named Allie whom he really loved but who died of Leukemia, and he has a little sister named Phoebe who he’s crazy about. Everything in Holden’s perspective falls under a few basic descriptions, and though his experiences are vivid, and he feels the repercussions of them even before he is finished having them, people are either ‘grand’ or ‘phony.’ Holden likes things that are real, and people who are without pretention. He is unfazed by the movies or theatre, or any who’s really an authority in what they do because sooner or later they start taking themselves too seriously and become a ‘phony’. He sees people trying to become more than they are, and he despises them for it. Likewise, he is appreciative of anyone who is sincere, and likes to do simple things, and does them well, like playing checkers, dancing the two step, or whistling. It’s clear that this is the perspective of someone who has not yet graduated to adult life. The world that we see through Holden is mostly the one he has no choice but to inhabit, and there are few joys for him, as he has barricaded himself away from the usual distractions. There are girls that he likes, and there is his kid sister, Phoebe, who ‘knocks me out’. He is always judging someone’s actions, and he turns every encounter in the novel into good and bad versions of people. He very much lives inside his own head, and he is always dreaming up film-like scenarios in which he gets shot and has to stumble around holding his guts in when he’s really just drunk and lonely and walking in the rain; or he has a fantasy of running away with a girl he likes, and they both end up living like deaf mutes, not talking to anyone else and only communicating by writing each other notes. He only comes to his senses when he realizes that his most recent fantasy has inspired his sweet little sister to join him in his fantastic adventures. He knows they’re all folderol, just stories he tells, and because she loves him so, she believes him. That’s when he decides to go home and admit to his parents his most recent transgression, and take the consequences, which result in therapy.Holden is in love with innocence, with the sentimental utility of his own memories, and with certain abstract facts, like where the ducks that live in the lagoon in Central Park go when it freezes up. He is, if anything, an essentialist, and is always a measuring stick to guide us through a hall of fame of past ‘phonies’. His perfect touchstone in all this is his dear little sister Phoebe, and the final scene has him watchng her riding the carousel in Central Park, trying to catch the brass ring which, as anyone knows, gives you a free ride. I will admit that when I was fifteen years old I had a minor obsession with this book, so going back and reading it was a bit of a revelation. It was charming and funny and silly and youthful, and instead of reminding me of lost youth, it made me realize how much I still have in common with myself when I was teenager. Holden and I are brothers of the city after all, we both went to private high schools, had to be adults before our time, and had an idea about how rebellion could shape us, though we didn’t yet have the sophistication to manage it. Emerson said it best in Self-Reliance: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members.” Holden Caulfield is a man in the making, a boy shaking himself off from his childhood while still revering the things that make childhood worthwhile and adulthood suspicious. He’s conscious of the conspiracy against his own manhood, as he itemizes the ‘grand’ and the ‘phony’ types en route to a place of relative peace.