June 3, 2023

Literature can shape the way we look at the world — even without our knowing it, or being beware of the specific literature in question. A Bible verse shared during a church service or a few lines of poetry offered in a classroom can have this effect. With novels, well-drawn characters can stick with us until we view life through their fictional eyes. I imagine Ernest Hemingway had this in mind when he claimed that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” There is a little of Huck Finn in all of us, in other words.

By the 1960s, however, Huck Finn had been largely replaced by Holden Caulfield in the American imagination. Despite what an original character Holden is and how deftly author J. D. Salinger developed him in the 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, that’s hardly a good thing.

The story covers teenaged Caulfield’s premature escape from his New Jersey boarding school after he had been expelled (yet again) for poor grades. We experience Holden’s irritation in the presence of his peers, his impatience in the presence of adults, and his overall dour disposition and lack of responsibility as a young man. Something is bugging Holden, and we’re not sure what it is. Yet, because Salinger obviously decided to relay an entire novel from this boy’s perspective, we have to assume that whatever is bugging Holden, it isn’t that he is a lazy, foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, sarcastic, entitled brat in need of the kind of love and guidance a military academy could have provided him back then.

No, whatever is plaguing our young, disaffected protagonist has to be something indicative of our rotten world. So this something is as much about us as it is about him. Holden gives us a hint of what this something is on page 1 when, by way of an introduction, he eschews “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” and alludes to “madman stuff” which transpired the previous Christmas and landed him wherever he is by the time he tells the story (some kind of sanitarium, it would seem).

So, what is bugging Holden and what all this “madman stuff” was are the two questions the reader wants answered as the story unfolds. I’ll give a summary without any spoilers.

Annoyed at his classmates’ perceived phoniness, Holden picks a fight with one over a girl and loses. He then leaves his school at night and heads home to New York City. He has several awkward encounters with adults during this time, much of which involves Holden drinking alcohol, telling lies, or talking incessantly about sex. He goes on a date with an old flame, which ends in disaster when he insults her. He then sneaks into his parents’ apartment and speak with his younger sister Phoebe, who loves him and infers that he has been expelled. He leaves before his parents return from an outing and then has an instructive yet harrowing encounter with a former teacher. After suffering a mental breakdown while walking aimlessly in New York, Holden vows to run away and live alone in a cabin out west. He arranges to meet Phoebe the next day to say goodbye and abscond without informing his parents. This second meeting with his sister will likely be the most consequential moment in this young man’s life.

The Catcher in the Rye is a classic for good reason. It is three-quarters of a great novel, because it has given us a unique — I would even say immortal — character in Holden Caulfield. He is a joy to read, and he enthralls the reader with discovery and mystery on almost every page. But why? At first blush he is a typical East Coast, upper-class white kid from the time the novel was written (1945-51). Everything about him and his story is fairly ordinary — and yet, I don’t know. Salinger makes it interesting by revealing Holden’s character slowly enough, and with appropriate narrative tension, for what exactly is bugging him to dawn on the reader. Holden also dispenses with all storytelling pretense while narrating (as his little dig at Charles Dickens suggests). In real life, I can see this getting fairly tedious, but in the hands of Salinger, it’s a revelation.

Holden’s troubles stem from his sui generis sensitivity to the world around him. This could enable him to be great writer one day; English is his favorite class, after all, and he especially enjoys composition writing. But as a teenager at boarding school, he’s crushed with loneliness, since absolutely no one he knows shares this sensitivity.

He attacks a popular boy named Stradlater, not merely because Stradlater went on a date with a girl he likes, but also because Stradlater doesn’t appreciate her peculiar habit of never moving her kings on the checker board. Only someone as sensitive as Holden could do such a thing. Holden exasperates a pair of New York City cab drivers who are wondering where Central Park’s ducks go in the winter. He’s able to see through the pretensions of a popular black jazz pianist named Ernie. He bores three young women at a bar with his theories on dancing. And after seeing a show with his date, he has some insightful thoughts on the actors, who happen to be Broadway legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

Tell me if we don’t have a young Andrew Sarris in Holden here:

They didn’t act like people and they didn’t act like actors. It’s hard to explain. They acted more like they knew they were celebrities and all. I mean they were good, but they were too good. When one of them got finished making a speech, the other one said something very fast right after it. It was supposed to be like people really talking and interrupting each other and all. The trouble was, it was too much like people talking and interrupting each other. They acted a little bit the way old Ernie, down in the Village, plays the piano. If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don’t watch it, you start showing off. And then you’re not as good anymore.

This is good stuff. Holden is not reiterating someone else’s observations or applying notions of aesthetics he picked up in drama class. This is all sweet, raw honey coming straight from the heart. And the line he always repeats? “That kills me.” Anything unusual or inspired that someone does has the potential of killing him, apparently: a clever story by Ring Lardner, Phoebe’s precious attempts at writing fiction, his former girlfriend placing her hand on the back of his neck during a movie. These and many other things “kill” Holden Caulfield — which, I believe, has a double meaning. For one, he experiences something akin to “a little death” — and we all know what that is. Holden basically receives a burst of pleasure that his sensitive soul just doesn’t know how to handle right away. Secondly, however, this particular word choice intimates that Holden’s grasp on life may not be quite what it should be. Of course, this only adds to the tension found in The Catcher in the Rye.

Holden is clearly someone special. Others, especially adults, realize this, which is why the two teachers he meets since leaving school regret his wasted talent and are at pains to give him good advice. The problem is that Holden is so lonely and discouraged that he doesn’t feel he deserves their concern. In fact, the generosity of others depresses him. He states this several times, and is never comfortable when people give him gifts or try to help him. Perhaps this is why he avoids seeing his parents? Perhaps this is also why he is so harsh on himself?

Here is a passage which I underlined when I read this book in high school. Holden had just recalled how he had broken his hand punching out all the windows in his garage after his younger brother Allie died of leukemia:

It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it, and you didn’t know Allie. My hand still hurts me once in a while, when it rains and all, and I can’t make a real fist any more — not a tight one, I mean — but outside of that I don’t care much. I mean I’m not going to be a goddam surgeon or violinist or anything anyway.

On the flipside, however, he can be very kind and solicitous to others, such has his generosity to a pair of nuns he meets in the city, or his benign concern for a prostitute he encounters. This is evident towards the end of the novel, when he says that he wishes he could grow up to be like the catcher in the rye from that misremembered Robert Burns poem who saves people, especially children, from the loneliness and despair that’s crushing him.

Holden Caulfield is indeed a wonderful, unforgettable character. But then why is The Catcher in the Rye only three-quarters of a great novel? Why is it bad that Holden has replaced Huck as the character through which so many Americans see their world?

Because Salinger, through Holden, suggests that the failure of others to live up to Holden’s high standards of sensitivity is somehow a moral failing — and this moral failing could lead to a person losing his rights in the reader’s eyes, at the very least. Further, Salinger presents the culture of 1940s East Coast America as more corrupt, seedy, and alienating than it really was. This leads to unnecessary antagonism between Holden and the culture he was born into. It’s heartbreaking to witness Holden imploring his deceased brother not to let him disappear while he’s suffering his mental breakdown. On the other hand, it’s not heartbreaking when Holden asserts to an annoying classmate that his red hunting cap is a “people shooting hat.” This was written 15 years before the University of Texas tower mass shooting in 1966 in which 18 people were killed and 31 injured. Prior to this, no twentieth-century American school shooting save one ever resulted in more than two deaths — and most of these were either accidental or restricted to people who were personally involved. The one exception, in May 1940, resulted in five deaths, and the shooter was the school principal, not a student.

Salinger can therefore be forgiven for assuming his protagonist would not encourage young men to go on shooting rampages, since such events were virtually unheard of prior to 1951. I doubt, however, that “people shooting” was meant metaphorically. Late in the novel, Holden states how he would rather “push a guy out the window or chop his head off with an ax than sock him in the jaw.” He hates getting into fistfights, you see. Holden also attempts to murder Stradlater after the latter’s date with Holden’s checkers-playing girlfriend.

Don’t believe me? Judge for yourself [emphasis mine]:

The next part I don’t remember so hot. All I know is I got up from the bed, like I was going down to the can or something, and then I tried to sock him, with all my might, right smack in the toothbrush, so it would split his goddam throat open. Only, I missed. I didn’t connect. All I did was sort of get him on the side of the head or something. It probably hurt him a little bit, but not as much as I wanted.

This incident alone wouldn’t be so bad if Holden expressed any remorse for it at all, which he does not. Nor is the reader expected to have any sympathy for this Stradlater, who was perhaps an inch or two away from bleeding out on the bathroom floor of his prep academy. From Holden’s perspective, Stradlater is a smug phony, a “secret slob,” and indicative of all that he despises his world — and all that we the reader should despise as well. Even the sound of his footsteps Holden considers stupid.

That Holden himself is an admitted liar or that he holds others to unreasonably high standards of decency and hygiene is not impressed upon the reader enough by Salinger — simply because the sensitive and introspective Holden never addresses it himself. Holden cannot stand his peers for their very human foibles. They don’t clean their shaving kits. They trim their toenails where others can see. They have bad breath or whistle out of tune. Thus, they deserve his contempt. Perhaps this is why he shows no regret when, as the manager of the fencing team, he left the team’s equipment on the subway, forcing the fencers to forfeit a match. Perhaps this is why he shows no compunction when waking a classmate up in the middle of the night to pressure him to buy a typewriter he didn’t really need to sell. (Who’s the phony now, Holden?)

He’s equally as judgmental about adults, to the point of being a misanthrope. He skewers his school, Pencey Prep, for not being completely honest when promoting itself in magazines. He complains about how and when his school serves steak for dinner. He estimates that nine out of ten people who cry in the movie theater “are mean bastards at heart” — as if a boy who tries to murder his classmate isn’t also a mean bastard at heart. When in a nightclub he meets an ex-girlfriend of his older brother by chance, he’s standoffish and rude. Why? Because he finds her boring and thinks the Navy officer accompanying her “looked like he had a poker up his ass.” The fact that she was perfectly nice to him amounts to nothing. Salinger ends the chapter in Caulfieldian contempt: “People are always ruining things for you.”

None of this would be to the detriment of the novel had Salinger not molded Holden as the poster boy for revenge-minded alienated youth. Holden is treated so sympathetically by Salinger, especially at the end, that the reader is constantly tempted to view life through Holden’s jaundiced eyes — as if it’s the world that’s at fault, not Holden. This is dangerous. Given the connection between The Catcher in the Rye and John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, and others like him, yes, this is dangerous. Huck Finn may have viewed himself as an outlaw for helping Jim escape slavery, but he never saw himself as a predator constantly at odds with most of humanity the way Holden Caulfield seems to be at times.

What further enables the psychopath-as-hero reading of The Catcher in the Rye is the fact that so little is nice in Holden’s world. So much of it is dingy, seedy, or vomity, and, boy, does Holden Caulfield love dwelling on that. Other than during his dreamy walk through the museum, Holden fixates on the ugly and the revolting in New York City, as if that’s all there is. And his penchant for exaggeration doesn’t help. A hotel lobby smells like “50 million dead cigars.” Walking down steps to the sidewalk, he nearly breaks his neck over “10 million garbage pails.”

Even worse, Salinger normalizes sexual perversion. In a hotel Holden finds “a few pimpy-looking guys, and a few whory-looking blondes.” Through the open windows of his hotel, he sees a man trying on women’s clothing and a drunken couple squirting alcohol at each other from their mouths. “The hotel was lousy with perverts,” he states.

Later, Holden meets a former student advisor of his named Luce, whom he describes thusly:

The only thing he ever did though, was give these sex talks and all, late at night when there were a bunch of guys in his room. He knew quite a bit about sex, especially perverts and all. He was always telling us about a lot of creepy guys that go around having affairs with sheep, and guys that go around with girls’ pants sewed in the lining of their hats and all. And flits and lesbians. Old Luce knew who every flit and Lesbian in the United States was.

Most tragically, when a man Holden admires touches him inappropriately and forces him to flee into the night, Holden wasn’t even terribly surprised. He admits that “perverty” things like that have happened to him “about twenty times” before. Rounding that down to the more accurate-sounding once or twice, we still have the normalcy of perversion. It’s as if most American boys in Salinger’s world are forced to deal with unwelcome come-ons from grown men.

Who wouldn’t want to shoot up a world like that?

With such a splendid character as Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye could have been a much greater contribution to Western literature. Salinger only needed to tone down the murder in Holden’s heart and the perversion in Holden’s world. Instead, however, he was happy to paint the world to be a darker place than it really is, and make it cool to hate your fellow man.

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