The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger, 1951

This is not part of the visitor recommendation series. I was just spouting off about it recently to my pal Zoe the Squirrel and thought I should reread it to verify that the things I told her had some basis in reality rather than in decades-old memories.

The squirrel wanted to know why The Catcher in the Rye was considered a classic, and in particular why Holden Caulfield was considered such a literary icon when he's "a tedious character with no real problems." The last time I really grappled with Catcher was when I was working on my undergraduate honors thesis on generational polemic, so my initial answer was based on the book's historical moment. It went something like this:

First, you have to recognize what Salinger did with voice. "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them." You might say, so what, that's what every teenage protagonist sounds like — but the reason they all sound like that is that Salinger created a template with sixty-plus years of staying power. It is strange to think that Catcher is as old now as The Great Gatsby was when I was in high school; to Zoe and her classmates, born in the mid-'90s, it's just another dusty title in the canon. But in my high school days, assigning Catcher still seemed a teensy bit subversive: hey, kids, let's take the sort of thing you'd normally be reading on your own and study it in class! And then the teachers were flummoxed to discover that Orange County kids of the '80s tended to hate it.

My thesis pointed toward an explanation for this, though I'm kind of reluctant to present it here since it was based on a credulous reading of Generations by Neil Howe and William Strauss, which isn't real social science. But… the basic idea is that the 1950s were a time of conformism. There was an establishment, and anyone worthwhile was expected to join it: "working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers, and playing bridge all the time," as Holden explains to a date. Holden's generation was what Howe and Strauss termed "adaptive," uncritically accepting the roles thrust upon them by the establishment — these are the "phonies" Holden is constantly complaining about, the ones who do well in school because they want to "learn enough to be smart enough to by able to buy a goddam Cadillac someday." (More about the phonies in a bit.) Holden yearns to opt out of the system, a rare message in the '50s and a compelling one to the decade's discontents. Then came the '60s, and the rise of an idealist generation for whom rejecting the establishment became an establishment in itself, and Holden Caulfield went from outcasts' idol to universal folk hero. But the youth of the '80s belonged to a reactive generation that (a) had grown up steeped in messages that were at least superficially anti-establishment, and (b) was as contemptuous of those messages as Holden is contemptuous of the phonies. Again, my perspective is probably distorted by the fact that I grew up in Orange County, but the BMW-driving Alex P. Keatons in my classes read a few pages of Holden Caulfield's lamentations and scoffed, "You are loser! Get out of my way!" And that was where my narrative ended, because (ulp) I wrote all this before Zoe was even born.

So putting aside this dubious attempt to ground Catcher's appeal or lack thereof in cultural history, what does the novel have to offer? Obviously most of how a reader reacts to The Catcher in the Rye is going to be a function of how that reader reacts to Holden Caulfield, but before I get into that, I wanted to quickly note that one of the pleasures of the book is Mezzanine-style close observation of the world, not by Holden, but by Salinger. Take Holden's essay on ancient Egypt:

The Egyptians were an ancient race of Caucasians residing in one of the northern sections of Africa. The latter as we all know is the largest continent in the Eastern Hemisphere. The Egyptians are extremely interesting to us today for various reasons. Modern science would still like to know what the secret ingredients were that the Egyptians used when they wrapped up dead people so that their faces would not rot for innumerable centuries. This interesting riddle is still quite a challenge to modern science in the twentieth century.

I read hundreds upon hundreds of practice essays over the course of my test prep career, and a significant percentage of them were pretty much exactly like this. I'm sure it's funny to people without that experience, but what really gets me are the telling details: word choices such as "Caucasians" and "innumerable," phrases such as "extremely interesting to us today" and "one of the northern sections"… clearly J.D. Salinger was a man who knew how decently literate students who have no idea how to write an essay write an essay. Or consider this moment, when the boy down the hall wanders into Holden's dorm room and asks him about the school's fencing match:

"We win, or what?" he said.
"Nobody won," I said. Without looking up, though.
"What?" he said. He always made you say everything twice.
"Nobody won," I said.

What's the point of having this other character say "What?" and making Holden repeat himself? There doesn't seem to be any other reason than the fact that, well, there are people who say "What?" to everything you say! (I'm one of them. Sorry!) I guess a lot of this can be folded back into the thing I said earlier about voice: yes, Holden's narration has a gimmickry to it that does start to grate on you after a while. But even after all this time, I was still startled to find moment after moment that made me think, wow, here's an author who (a) is really interested in how people actually speak and (b) demonstrates that most authors really aren't.

But enough of the peripheral stuff. Ultimately, how much you get out of The Catcher in the Rye is largely a function of how much the character of Holden Caulfield resonates with you. You don't have to identify with him, or even like him, but something about him has to strike a chord. On this read, four elements of his character jumped out at me as potential candidates:


First, and least interesting to me, is his lack of impulse control. While Elizabeth and I were road tripping through eastern Canada this summer, we listened to a series of lectures on developmental psychopathology, and the professor brought up the case of a kid who went to a birthday party, and as soon as the cake was brought out — and remember, this is not his own birthday party — he plunged his face into it. He just didn't have that little voice telling him, "Wait! What you're about to do is stupid!" And neither does Holden. Example: "All I had was three singles and five quarters and a nickel left — boy, I spent a fortune since I left Pencey. Then what I did, I went down near the lagoon and I sort of skipped the quarters and the nickel across it, where it wasn't frozen. I don't know why I did it, but I did it." There are a bunch of other scenes in which Holden is acting out in various ways and can't even explain why, such as when he's in the bathroom talking to his roommate and "All of a sudden — for no good reason, really, except that I was sort of in the mood for horsing around — I felt like jumping off the washbowl and getting old Stradlater in a half nelson. That's a wrestling hold, in case you don't know, where you get the other guy around the neck and choke him to death, if you feel like it. So I did it." Consider also his love of digressions, both in principle and in practice. So, yes, Catcher's historical moment may have passed, but still, if The Bell Jar is still relevant because people still suffer from depression, then it seems to me that Holden Caulfield should still be relevant given current statistics on ADHD. (On the other hand, I guess modern students may wonder why Holden wasn't just put on Ritalin like everyone else. Answer: one, because that's an anachronism, and two, because then the book would run about eleven pages.)


The second element of Holden's makeup that I imagine still speaks to a wide readership is what I have come to call "adolescent overfeeling." I don't know about you, but my emotions are maybe ten percent as strong as they were when I was a teenager — really, up to age 25 or so I had lots of dizzying highs and terrifying lows but not so many of the creamy middles. That's certainly the place I wrote Ready, Okay! from: I recently had occasion to flip through it again and I was struck by how the protagonist, who was supposed to be someone who uses comedy as a defense mechanism against facing his emotions, is actually an ambulatory bleeding wound for most of the book. But there's more to what I'm talking about than just amplified feelings and mood swings. Spin adolescent overfeeling the right way and you get a longstanding archetype, the figure who may put on a brave face, but for whom the world is just too much. "How can that squirrel say that I don't have any real problems?", Holden might protest. "I went to the park and the benches looked wet! Maybe you can live in that kind of world, but not me!" In one sequence Holden goes to a bar, grumbles about and then immediately pities the piano player (calling his demeanor "very phony — I mean him being such a big snob and all. In a funny way, though, I felt sort of sorry for him after he was finished"), gets sad ("it made me feel depressed and lousy again"), grumbles about and then immediately pities the people he's eavesdropping on ("I was surrounded by jerks […] I feel so sorry for them sometimes"), runs into his older brother's ex, then grumbles about and immediately pities her ("I didn't like her much. Nobody did. You had to feel sort of sorry for her, in a way"). And the list of things that make Holden sad is even longer than the list of people he feels sorry for: his mother buying him a pair of ice skates, a prostitute buying a dress, nuns eating lunch at sandwich shop, they all leave him "so depressed, you can't imagine." My generation would later see this archetype come to life in the person of Kurt Cobain: "I'm grateful, but since the age of seven, I've become hateful towards all humans in general. […] Only because I love and feel sorry for people too much I guess," he wrote in his suicide note. "I still can't get over the frustration, the guilt and empathy I have for everyone. There's good in all of us and I think I simply love people too much. So much that it makes me feel too fucking sad. The sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus man." Narrate these emotions as they are happening, rather than reflecting upon them prior to blowing your head off, and you end up with pretty much every page of Catcher.


Of course, Salinger had another character who was even more of a sensitive Jesus man than Holden and who, like Kurt, shot himself in the head as a result: Seymour Glass. Back in my Salinger fanboy days I was more into the Glass family stories than Catcher, and Salinger's brood of prodigies was obviously a huge influence on the Mockery clan. But Holden's situation now strikes me as potentially more interesting than that of Franny and Zooey. Consider this. In last season's Mad Men finale, Megan's mother diagnoses Megan's depression thusly: "I know it's hard to watch, but this is what happens when you have the artistic temperament but you are not an artist." Could it not be said of Holden that his main problem is that he has a philosophical temperament, but just isn't very smart? He spends the entire novel griping about how hard it is to find people interested in intelligent conversation, but he's incapable of participating in one; the best he can do is to ask cab drivers where ducks go when the ponds freeze. When he does have a chance to sit down with an old classmate of an intellectual bent, his contribution to the conversation is on a par with that of Eric Idle in the "wink wink nudge nudge" sketch. So it's easy to see why some might find Catcher annoying: since we see everything through Holden's eyes, with his defensive narration as a soundtrack, it's not hard to read the novel as a celebration of the D student who everyone says is smarter than the A students but just, like, rejects the system, maaaan. Especially given that such a celebration would fit neatly into a tradition of such messages, from the "turn on, tune in, and drop out" mantra of the Baby Boom generation to the "Bart Simpson, Underachiever — And Proud of It, Man!" t-shirts of my own. But this time around I was very struck by the speech near the end of the novel by Mr. Antolini, in which he impresses upon Holden that, as square as it might sound, Holden's only chance to avoid wasting his life is to start applying himself in school immediately. Look at how the complexion of the novel changes when viewed through this lens:

"Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior."

I.e., The Catcher in the Rye isn't trying to put forth the startling thesis that shit is fucked up — it's about someone who has grasped the very basic insight that shit is fucked up but doesn't have the mental tools to do anything with that insight other than act self-destructively.

"I'm not trying to tell you that only educated and scholarly men are able to contribute something valuable to the world. It's not so. But I do say that educated and scholarly men, if they're brilliant and creative to begin with — which, unfortunately, is rarely the case — tend to leave infinitely more valuable records behind them than men do who are merely brilliant and creative. They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end. And — most important — nine times out of ten they have more humility than the unscholarly thinker."

This is basically a critique of Holden as an inarticulate, digressive wannabe thinker in dire need of an education. It's the opposite of a "drop out" message and far from a celebration of underachievement.

"Something else an academic education will do for you. If you go along with it any considerable distance, it'll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have. What it'll fit and, maybe, what it won't. After a while, you'll have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing."

And here's the suggestion that maybe Holden just isn't that smart. Now, this is where we start getting into tricky questions of authorial intent. It's easy to say that this is such a spot-on diagnosis of Holden, and the advice is so manifestly wise, that Mr. Antolini must be functioning as Salinger's mouthpiece. And there is a school of thought that the text is the text and the world is the world and you can't use the latter to inform the former. But I can't help but note that Salinger himself dropped out of several schools, and spent the rest of his life adopting and discarding a series of belief systems. It makes me wonder whether Mr. Antolini is really just meant to echo things Salinger himself had been told: to stay in school, to avoid overreaching, to stop grappling with The Meaning of Life and stick to writing wry little observational stories for the New Yorker and the occasional cult novel for young people. Of course, the fact that Salinger didn't take this advice doesn't mean it's wrong. It doesn't even necessarily mean that Salinger thought it was wrong. My guess would be that writing this novel was one of the chief ways he grappled with the question.


Now, as noted, if there's one thing someone knows about The Catcher in the Rye, it's that Holden Caulfield doesn't like "phonies." But until this reread I don't think I had pinpointed exactly what it is that marks someone with that label. The main thing that sets Holden off is when someone adopts a new mannerism, such as using the word "grand." No one describes things as "grand" naturally; uttering that syllable therefore signals that you're attempting to position yourself as a member of a group that does use it. In this case I guess you could call that group the establishment, but that's not Holden's main objection; he also looks down on those who adopt anti-establishment mannerisms, because they're trying to join "dirty little goddam cliques" instead of being their authentic selves. Of course, nobody uses any word naturally — literally every word we ever speak is something we picked up from somewhere else, even interjections (you have to learn whether to say "ow!" or "aie!" when you stub your toe). Still, there's absorbing things unconsciously, and then there's deliberately deciding to change your behavior for the sake of finding a place in the world.

Finding a place in the world is one of the defining activities of adolescence, and it's what Holden is failing to do — his thoughts about the future tend to devolve into fantasies about hitchhiking out west and working at a gas station while pretending to be a deaf-mute, or intercepting children falling off imaginary cliffs. The latter fantasy is what lends the book its title, and I've read many pieces discussing Holden's fixation on childhood and the preservation of innocence. But I don't think I've seen anyone make this point. Catcher came out right around the time the very concept of "the teenager" started to take hold, and I think one of the strengths of the novel is that Salinger hit upon a key insight about adolescence, one that is remarked upon rarely enough that it still felt fresh to me: if adolescence is indeed its own life stage, then that means that it's the first stage of life in which you can be nostalgic. Your childhood is over, and you can never get it back. And that can be tough to wrap your head around when you've never had to deal with the completion of a life stage before. Look at the sequence in which Holden tries to track down his ten-year-old sister Phoebe, and gets a lead from a girl around Phoebe's age. After they talk, Holden notes: "She was having a helluva time tightening her skate. […] I gave her a hand with it. Boy, I hadn't had a skate key in my hand for years. It didn't feel funny, though. You could put a skate key in my hand fifty years from now, in pitch dark, and I'd still know what it is." Holden proceeds directly to the Museum of Natural History, and launches into a reverie that stretches on for over two pages without a paragraph break. Now, do most modern first-time readers of Catcher have any idea what a "skate key" is? Probably not. How many have ever been to the Museum of Natural History? Not many, and none to the late-1940s version of it. But do they experience this kind of nostalgia? The "You Nostalgia You Lose" threads I've seen online, full of college freshmen waxing wistful over Pokemans and video game consoles from way after my time, suggest they do. ("You could put a PS2 controller in my hand fifty years from now…") Certainly my high school classmates and I spent an inordinate amount of time talking about Scooby-Doo. So, yeah, even as the specifics go from dusty to fossilized, I think that as long as people go through the same life stages (which according to Counting Heads may not be much longer!), Catcher will still be worth keeping in the canon.

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