Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Any Human Heart, bildungsroman, Holden Caulfield, Human Developement, J.D. Salinger, Literature, masculinity, Mein Kampf, Nine Stories, Novel, reflective writing, Sexuality, teenager, The Catcher in the Rye, The Little Prince, troubled young man, William Boyd
Reading a book seven times is either the surest sign of devotion or pathetic obsession. Though it’s a sad truth that those two frequently coincide.
In my library there are two books that I have read more than six times over the course of my life, the first is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and the other is The Catcher In the Rye by J.D. Salinger. This admission comes at great personal terror, for while there’s nothing wrong with reading a book multiple times, the adage “You discover new things every time you read it” sings eternal truth,” Salinger’s novel is surrounding by an unfortunate miasma (fancy-pants word for fog, and I just realized too late we live in the age of Google and you could have just looked it up on your own).
I’ll never forget English 3308 and watching my professor break psychologically as he explained how the language used by Holden Caulfield demonstrated a steady dwindling of personal ego thus resulting in an experience where the reader and Holden became one and nothing at the same time. Despite that intro that professor was without a doubt one of the most brilliant men I have ever met. While teaching me about literary/social theory he also managed to share an important “fact.” The Catcher and the Rye due to its troublesome history is one of the most monitored books on the market, for example, organizations such as the FBI are able to monitor the reading habits of civilians and keep lists of people who acquire certain books. Books like Mein Kampf, which attract a particular sort of reader, shall we say of the dickless variety, are watched more than others, however they keep an eye on The Catcher in the Rye because it’s been linked to at least two different attacks by famous celebrities. The man who shot John Lennon was carrying a copy of the book in his jacket when he performed the act, and the man who stabbed George Harrison, apart from being a delusional lunatic, supposedly believed himself to be Holden Caulfield in some form. It also doesn’t help that not long after Salinger published the novel he went into a deep seclusion, hiding from the general public, refusing interviews, and becoming, much like Thomas Pynchon only without the charming Simpsons cameo, the embodied stereotype of the secluded writer.
These memories and bizarre “facts” are what occur first when I realize that as the Spring semester is about to begin, and I start what will be my last semester of grad school, I will be reading The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger for the seventh time. I’m sure the FBI has now placed me on their “WATCH WITH CARE” list and have probably bugged my library. My Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland now watch me as I enter the room, and the photo of my wife has been eyeing more closely lately…huh.
If the reader is unfamiliar with this actual book it would not surprise me. The Catcher in the Rye has been banned in many schools, and if it hasn’t it has been carefully, and too often silently, stripped from the reading lists of teachers hoping to teach something besides The Great Gatsby or Crime and Punishment. As such, subsequent generations of students are entering college without having read one of the most important novels in American literary history. The novel is the three day journey of a teenaged boy named Holden Caulfield who struggles socially and no this isn’t the story of my life. It isn’t! I swear really! Look I’ve never hired a prostitute, I’ve never even been to New York…you know what I don’t have to justify myself to you. Holden has flunked out of the private boarding school his parents sent him to, and he notes this is, at least, the third time this has happened. He decides to leave early and rest up in a hotel in New York until the Christmas break and surprise his family. However even after he sets himself up in a hotel his restlessness gets the better of him and he decides to go out on the town, going to bars, drinking, calling old girlfriends, hiring a prostitute, getting beat up by her pimp, going ice skating with a girl he doesn’t really like, offers to elope with her to Canada, meets an old teacher who he thinks molests him (though that isn’t entirely clear), sneaks into his parents’ house to say hi to his little sister, goes to a museum with her, and ends the novel watching her ride the carousel.
At first glance this may not appear to be a blockbuster smash and sounds in fact like one of those god-awful independent films that, as South Park so eloquently put it once, is often about cowboys exploring their sexuality. That might be a bit too far, but I understand the trepidation(fancy pants word for…ah ah, caught myself, look it up yourself), listening to a firsthand account from a teenage boy doesn’t immediately scream out a great time, and when I read it the first time as a teenage boy I agreed with that sentiment. The problem with Holden is that he’s deceptive, often leading the reader up to something he snatches away at the last minute. It’s clear from the first line:
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. (1)
There are few first lines that inspire such immediate identification as well as literary resonance. I apologize if I begin to gush but the fact of the matter is J.D. Salinger remains one of the strongest American authors in terms of presenting fully developed character, and not only in this novel. His collection Nine Stories, a series of short stories published originally in The New Yorker stands as one of the most readable and brilliant collection of shorts by an author, no offense Hemingway…okay offense, no homo though…homo. From the first line Holden becomes a person that’s impossible to forget because there’s an immediate distrust between him and the reader. Holden never gives his reader any real territory unless he’s stumbled upon it by accident and even after he’s confessed to something he buries it beneath a series of “I really do” “I think” or “that kind of stuff drives me crazy.”
The identification, at least for a male reader, I’d love to understand what a woman thinks of Holden, is the ego being presented. It’s clear that when Holden talks he’s trying to pump himself and at the same time he doesn’t know how to be confident. Looking back at the passage before the prostitute arrives at his room he thinks about his virginity:
If you want to know the truth, I’m a virgin. I really am. I’ve had quite a few opportunities to lose my virginity and all, but I’ve never got around to it yet. (92)
This passage reeks of teenage boy. He begins asking if we want to know the truth, then the confession, then he reasserts the validity of the confession, and one can hear the pompous “I’ve had quite a few opportunities,” before he immediately ducks into an explanation to dismantle everything he’s said up to that point. These three sentences constitute a structure of performance that are repeated throughout the novel as Holden crafts an almost fantastical three day journey through New York.
Well so what then, by the sounds of it everything is baloney. If the reader shouldn’t trust anything Holden says why should they bother listening to him whining for 214 pages?
Well dear reader the problem is with one of the words you used in your critique. The word whine is a word that I’ve resisted and wobbled on with each reading of The Catcher in the Rye. The first two times I read the book I did believe that Holden was whining about his life and family, then the next two times I thought Holden was a brilliant philosopher, then the next two times I thought he was whining, but the whining was justified, and as I approach reading this book for the seventh time I believe I understand where the young man was coming from. Puberty is a vicious hell. That’s a fact. Those of us that live through it are ultimately scarred in some form or fashion, but what many of us remember is the pain and seemingly endless anxiety. Now I can’t speak for what it’s like for women, but often in young men the response of puberty is anger: we hate the world, we hate being confused, we hate the people and forces that are making us anxious and confused and looking back to Holden there’s certainly plenty of anger. He attends, like I did, a private school run mostly by spoiled rich kids, he’s lost one brother to death and another to Hollywood (though some might argue that’s the same thing), his family’s home environment is less than pleasant, and he’s beginning to recognize more and more that he’s not a child anymore and entering into a world that appears bizarre and, at times, perverted.
After he left, I looked out the window for a while, with my coat on and all. I didn’t have anything else to do. You’d be surprised what was going on on the other side of the motel. They didn’t even bother to pull the shades down. I saw one guy, a grey-haired, very distinguished-looking guy with only his shorts on, do something you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. First he put his suitcase on the bed. Then he took out all these women’s clothes, and put them on. Real women’s clothes—silk stockings, high-heeled shoes, brassiere, and one of those corsets with the straps hanging down and all. Then he put on this very tight black evening dress. I swear to god. Then he started walking up and down the room, taking these very small steps, the way a woman does, and smoking a cigarette and looking at himself in the mirror. He was all alone, too. Unless somebody was in the bathroom—I couldn’t see that much. Then, in the window almost right over his, I saw a man and a woman squirting water out of their mouths at each other. It probably was highballs, not water, but I couldn’t see what they had in their glasses. Anyway first he’d take a swallow and squirt it over her, then she did it to him—they took turns, for God’s sake. You should have seen them. They were in hysterics the whole time, like it was the funniest thing that ever happened. I’m not kidding the hotel was lousy with perverts. (62)
This is followed however by a careful and knowing statement:
I was probably the only normal bastard in the whole place—and that isn’t saying much. (62)
The “perverts” leave an impression upon the reader, like they did on me when I first read the book as a high school junior, and I read the passage I like many before me, assumed that Holden was placing himself above other people completely ignoring the second line. The passage is also hilariously familiar for who doesn’t remember the shock they experienced when they recognized that some people exhibit their sexuality in a different way than dressing up as a Penguin and pasting pictures from Playgirl around the room while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance…right? Who doesn’t do that?…ahem.
Holden has been almost deified by a population of readers as some kind of philosopher or leader providing secret messages of life through his words. If my reader says that’s bullshit I’m with them completely. The conflict pf Holden is that he has been surrounded by wack-jobs looking for philosophy in teenage angst, however much like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver the real conflict is not that Holden is some kind of prophet, Holden’s conflict is that he is broken after the death of his brother Allie who died young, and dealing with the end of his childhood and entrance into the complex and often confusing reality of adulthood. Near the end of the novel when Holden sneaks into his parents apartment and talks with his little sister he explains what he’d like to do:
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s what I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy. (173).
At this point in the novel Holden has encountered person after person in New York desperately trying to find someone who understands or feels the same way about the human condition that he does. He’s watched his imaginative adventure crumble under the weight of reality in New York, he’s been beaten up, rejected, and his little sister Phoebe is last hope. Looking then at this passage what seems missing from the larger interpretations of The Catcher in the Rye is the fact that the novel is an exploration of coming of age.
Before the reader says “fucking duh” hear me out. The pitfall of teaching about phase-of-life crises in a classroom is that often the teacher has to resort to cheap platitudes. “Nothing lasts forever,” and “the innocence of children dies away,” to which I call bull-fucking-shit. Children are never the innocent creatures people would like them to be, they are simply ignorant of the complexities of human life. When people talk about their childhood dying they often pretty up the acquisition of responsibility comparing it to the death of a gentle cherub, when in fact what is happening is far more complex. As we age we begin to recognize the fault in others as more than simply “he’s good/he’s bad” we recognize that people act out of selfishness, desire, ambition, greed, or fear and so it becomes difficult to call someone purely bad, but we’re told in our youth that people are purely good or bad and so the mind struggles to understand this paradox. Being a teenager is difficult enough biologically, but from a social viewpoint many of us suffer from Holden’s fear.
Holden is beginning to recognize that people aren’t perfect, in fact sometimes people can be dicks, what he has yet to find however is a functional social support, a network of friends that care about him and are able to provide him emotional buffering and that is where Phoebe comes into it. By the end, Holden finds himself alone in the park, no place to go, no human contact whatsoever, until he has a thought:
I started thinking about how old Phoebe would feel if I got pneumonia and died. It was a childish way to think, but I couldn’t stop myself. She’d feel pretty bad if something like that happened. She likes me a lot. I mean she’s quite fond of me. She really is. Anyway, I couldn’t get that off my mind, so finally what I figured I’d do, I figured I’d better sneak home and see her, in case I died and all. (156).
There’s more to the story of course and I could describe how every time I read the ending scene with Phoebe riding the carousel and Holden sitting on a bench in the rain laughing I cry, in fact I just did, but this essay is meant more as a reflection as I once again consider this book for a seventh time. I’ve struggled with the character of Holden, with his stupid red hunting cap, and I remember a line from William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart:
Rereading my old journals is both a source of revelation and shock. I can see no connection between that schoolboy and the man I am now. What a morose, melancholy, troubled soul I was. That wasn’t me was it? (458)
Unlike the protagonist of Boyd’s novel, I still see many lingering habits, or at least ghosts, of my former-self in Holden, and perhaps that’s why reading this book a seventh time will be so haunting. I’ve grown tremendously over the last few years and so visiting that troubled young man, who has no earthly clue what to do or who he is or what he wants isn’t exactly a dream come true. I see day by day, my efforts to stamp out that part of my life and there is revealed a larger problem with not teaching The Catcher in the Rye. Many people look back upon puberty as I described it before, as Hell, and for the most part people don’t want to remember Hell. They want to enjoy their life and not dwell on the embarrassments of the past, or else the mediocrity that may have been their former selves, but in doing so we forget what it was like to be a teenager. When we forget those anxieties, those first loves, and those egos it becomes easy to dismiss the problems of people who are living in that grief. When we attempt to forget who we were, it makes it easier to lack empathy for the people who suffered as we did, and so opportunities to bridge the divide between the generations is only further intensified.
I read The Catcher in the Rye three times for school and three times for personal enjoyment because I, like many young men before me, recognized a familiar plight.
Fifty years on and Salinger’s work can still perform the wonder of connecting me to my former self…and my former self really needs a haircut and a shower. Jeez dude it’s called deodorant, and you wonder why no girl goes out with you.