Not long before I entered official teenagedom, I became aware of The Catcher in the Rye, a book I sought out from curiosity, and put down less than impressed. I couldn’t comprehend what the fuss was all about, and didn’t really care for Holden Caulfield. Super negative, he swore a lot and hypocritically labeled others as phonies when he himself told lies all the time. Pre-teen Me, who herself wasn’t exactly the most positive of people, wanted to experience Great Literature and tried reading other J.D. Salinger books, but it all went nowhere.
Fast forward to one of my seventeen-year-old son’s literary conversations, and guess which book popped into the mix? You know it – The Catcher in the Rye. “Oh, I’m reaaaallly not in love with that book,” I muttered, surprised to read the astonishment in his face. I admitted recalling very little of the story, just that I hadn’t cared for it. “The most I can give you,” I finally responded when he insisted upon some sort of input, “is a passage where Caulfield pretends he’s shot and acts, well, kind of stupid. At least that’s how I recall perceiving his behavior. Oh and a field of rye, where he catches children before they fall.”
Now, the truth is that my son has always been a reader and started first grade, a year he and his classmates were meant to conclude at Level 18 in the reading achievement measurement used at the time, at Level 16. He devoured Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone all by himself that year and collected a fair amount of certificates and school swag from racking up the reading points. So I shouldn’t have been surprised that all the literary experience, from then till now, might be used against me. He drew a breath, recognizable as the sort preceding a very long explanation or perhaps dissertation, and gave me the lowdown on this classic.
The themes to get the most airtime within The Catcher in the Rye were alienation from society and loss of innocence. Vague as my memories were, I could recognize this, though I did find myself thinking, Why didn’t I see this back then? To be honest, I was a bit of a reading snob as a youngster and probably believed I ought to have read a book that literary types lionized. However, I clearly took very little away from the experience, with the possible exception of even more of a bad attitude, though I do recall some semi-successful attempts to bring back some of the old-fashioned colloquialisms. (This was also true of my experience with The Pigman, a book I liked much better and constantly borrowed “You’re such a card” from.)
In the end, I decided I might give Salinger’s novel another go, and when I did, I wondered how on earth I could have missed so much that was so obvious. For starters, on a surface level The Catcher in the Rye is about a teenage boy roaming alone around New York City. But we begin to dig deeper into it all simply by understanding that this is his hometown, yet he feels so alone and frightened. It isn’t exactly a fear for his physical self, though that is there; more at the heart of his anxiety is the psychological warfare he seems to battle against, with others as well as himself the enemy. As he wanders through subways and parks, rides in taxicabs and tries to make connections, he asks people questions, their answers always falling short of the world Holden desperately tries to hold on to, while simultaneously aware that his transition into the next is inevitable.
This internal conflict, along with Holden’s perception of the adult world as poisonous and corrupt, plays a large role in his frequent school expulsions, the most recent of which drives him to these wanderings, owing to his desire not to see his parents before the school’s letter will reach them in a few days. With the security of a red hunting cap he loves and some money he had saved, Caulfield tries to make connections with people, known and unknown, often telling absurd and unnecessary lies or inviting them to the movies or for a drink. Time after time he is rebuffed or disappointed, and he sees the world as filled with people intent on the “game,” as a teacher had labeled Life, their phoniness and players’ attitude something he wants no part of.
Holden has a poor relationship with his parents, but loves his ten-year-old sister, Phoebe, and sneaks into the family apartment to see her. He tells her of the one and only job he truly aspires to, as a catcher in the rye, that is the individual stationed in a field of rye tasked with the job of catching the children playing there before they fall off a nearby cliff. By this time we are able to read this as the metaphor it is, and understand that Holden is so intent upon preserving innocence, his own and others’, that it has affected his outlook and behavior, even though this causes him to stay in place rather than move forward. This is exhibited in a passage in which Holden re-visits his younger childhood.
I walked all the way through the park over to the Museum of Natural History…I knew that whole museum routine like a book. Phoebe went to the same school I went to when I was a kid, and we used to go there all the time. We had this teacher, Miss Aigletinger, that took us there damn near every Saturday…The best thing…in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers…Nobody’d be different.
Of course, everything staying as it is when he was younger is what he wants. He admits to being immature, despite his tall stature and possession of a fair amount of gray hairs. But Holden’s narrative raises the issues that lay behind all this, or at least part of it. We never know for sure if he may have been predisposed to such emotional sensitivity, or if the environmental factors of his experiences—such as the untimely death of his brother Allie, who succumbed to leukemia, or a classmate’s suicide—exacerbated or initiated his perilous state of mind. Either way, these deaths represent an end of innocence, particularly in the case of Allie, whom Holden had perceived as the perfect child.
Because he desires most of all to preserve childhood, he clings to the past as he moves forward into this world he neither likes nor understands. Simultaneously, he tries to keep his sister safe. When he decides to run away, he sends a note to her school, requesting she meet him one last time. Holden and Phoebe walk around for a bit, ending up at a carousel, and though Phoebe herself says she’s too big, her brother persuades her to ride it. “When she was a tiny little kid, and Allie and D.B. and I used to go to the park with her, she was mad about the carrousel. You couldn’t get her off the goddamn thing.” He recalls the carousel always playing the same music and, like the museum setup, this static existence appeals to him because it will aid in keeping his sister safe from the world he himself so fears for her.
Though certainly not an exhaustive examination into Salinger’s novel, even this little bit I seem to have skipped in my elementary school reading. I would have been in around seventh grade, and I recall at that time also reading about Lewis Carroll, Arthurian legend and the Salem witch trials, the last of which I used as backdrop for a short story. Plus there was perhaps a bit of Nancy Drew still in there. All of this tells me I was likely not in the mindset of this sort of reading, nor mature enough for it.
Still, I went looking for more. As mentioned above, I moved on to Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, neither of which I remember a thing about. I do recall, however, reading about Salinger, who had become reclusive and refused to grant interviews. Very little information on him was available, but I did learn he had served in the European theater and saw some of the worst of the violence and cruelty war could offer, including Utah Beach and, later that year, the Battle of the Bulge. According to a video my son provided me with (which I’ll embed below), he also was one of the first Americans to help liberate a concentration camp. Yet other works—war novels such as Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five—were authored by men who had seen far less of the war’s brutality. For all his witness, Salinger understood that for the vulnerable, “normal” life could also impose a terrible ruthlessness if these individuals are unequipped or without the resources to handle it.
Pre-teen Me might have scoffed at such a sentiment (although I was actually a rather sensitive child), and even some grownups today might. However, this re-visitation of The Catcher in the Rye re-awoke something in me and I found myself feeling for Holden as he is angered by the F word graffiti’d on a wall, or crying when his sister loans him some of her saved-up Christmas money. As an adult now, I don’t get worked up, but can feel the affinity for what his emotions undergo even while understanding there’s a bit of naval gazing going on there.
The thing is this: Today’s insane world of relativism, lack of responsibility and consequences, and looking-glass ethics kind of crushes the idea that any of this is, at least anymore, as obvious as some might see it as. In literary examination, however, as John Green in his video points out, there can be more than one character. Here we have two Holden Caulfields: one living the story at age sixteen, and the one recounting, at seventeen, what happened the year prior. Green briefly discusses one of many angles not covered here, that of language usage as technique to bring readers into the story, something Salinger does with amazing skill. Through figurative language, for example, we are able to connect with Holden’s experiences and “see the world through his eyes”—and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it can enable us to better see the real world as well. Green seems to agree: Despite Holden’s battles being fought within ordinary city settings and not Hürtgen Forest, he says, we care about them. “That’s the miracle of language, especially effective figurative language…When students complain about reading critically, about having to do ‘all this English class stuff,’ that’s what they’re forgetting. All that ‘English class stuff’ is a way into empathy; for Holden and for all of us, it’s a way to hear and be heard.”
The world has never been a safe place for the uninitiated; in this way our times are not unique. At a certain point in the lives of all, loss of innocence is an inevitability and we have to find new ways to operate, understand and appreciate—Joy’s grape and all that. Still, I’m pretty certain we are unleashing some fairly horrible new realities on the innocent, so that catcher in the rye gig Holden wished for himself might come in handy after all.
Many thanks to Turtle for leading me to re-read
The Catcher in the Rye and introducing me to Crash Course