home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the catcher in the rye

10 january 2012

I used to read The Catcher in the Rye very frequently. I really did. The book is full of goddam phonies, and Holden Caulfield sometimes gives me a pain in the ass, but he's not mean or anything. And I love Phoebe. I get a bang out of old Phoebe. I'm not kidding.

I also happen to be nearly six foot two, and I have millions of grey hairs on one side of my head, which explains my identification with Holden Caulfield despite the fact that my family never had a lot of dough. I did go to one school after another, but not because I got kicked out. And I went to public high school in New Jersey, which is where Holden and I definitively part company. Yet when I was a 16-year-old highschooler in a fairly gritty small-town Jersey high school, I still took great comfort in Holden's worldview, his penchant for telling lousy bastards to go to hell. That worldview has connected millions of American teens to The Catcher in the Rye, even though only a vanishingly small percentage of us ever got near the kind of preppy boarding schools he keeps getting thrown out of.

Of course, it isn't really as a role model that Holden has become required reading in American young-adult literature. He is unstable, selfish, copes badly with depression and substances, and the jag that he takes across mid-20th-century Manhattan is not recommendable as a coming-of-age ritual. But it's hard (though hardly impossible) to read The Catcher in the Rye and not develop deep sympathy for its narrator. Part of this is the phenomenon whereby you develop sympathy for any narrator, up to and including Humbert Humbert. But it's more than just the appeal of the guy who monopolizes your attention. Holden's world is full of phonies (most of them resorting to pretense out of insecurity, but still). And he is at the end of his rope, like other strung-out characters in modern literature from Dostoevsky through Knut Hamsun to Camus. Centrally, Holden can't get over the unfairness of mortality itself, which has killed his perfectly good kid brother and left people like Stradlater and Luce, unctuous and self-assured, to live on.

The Catcher in the Rye is not all appealing. It's a 277-page exercise in narrative voice that almost overstays its welcome. It's not highly enlightened. Holden throws his callow preppy prejudices around; as much as he seems to empathize with the little guy, he's not very much into diversity, and he shares the sexism of many mid-20th-century liberals. But having embarked on the somewhat repellent task of staring deep into upper-class angst, Salinger doesn't flinch or get self-conscious. Holden doesn't really have his own last word; Mr Antolini, the teacher who has been where Holden is and sort of figured it out in time, is the superego of the book (as Roberta Trites observes, in her fine critique of Salinger in Disturbing the Universe). But Holden holds the floor of his own novel (silencing Mr Antolini for trying to get too close, in a scene that you can read either homophobically or as an innocent portrayal of homophobic ignorance; it's distressing either way, and points to another of Holden's dated and objectionable traits, his sneers at gay men).

But what a feast of language while it lasts. The Catcher in the Rye is perhaps the best guide to the use of "goddam" in any study of American dialects. It's a relentlessly perfect feat of everyday-language narration. (Again, in line with the novel's homophobic flaws, the one note that rings false is the use of "flit" where I think that Holden wants to say "fag" and is censoring himself; it's the only self-conscious note in his dialect. Well, that and Holden's avoidance of the word "fuck," which he uses half a dozen times only to condemn it; but there's a sort of callow cleanness in his continual use of slightly lesser obscenities that is nice and consistent.)

And Holden is even a literary theorist. He hates A Farewell to Arms because he senses that Hemingway is a phony, glorifying war even as he suffers through it. Holden prefers The Great Gatsby, and the work of Fitzgerald's sportswriting friend:

I liked Ring Lardner and The Great Gatsby and all. I did, too. I was crazy about The Great Gatsby. Old Gatsby. Old sport. That killed me. (183)
Which is heavily ironic, because Gatsby is the biggest goddam phony in American literature. Even Nick Carraway despises Gatsby for it; but in the end, Holden and Nick agree: Gatsby was all right.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. 1951. New York: Back Bay [Little, Brown; Hachette], 2010.