UPDATED (at end): Since the death of J.D. Salinger, there’s been scads of comment declaring his books as life-changers (or not) and plenty of speculation on what waits in his safe to be published or what might be made into a movie and even some of that personal, David Copperfield kind of crap. But there’s been precious little about why Salinger’s great achievement, The Catcher In the Rye, had the impact it had. How is it that the story of a post-World War II, New York prep-school kid spoke across class and generational divides to six decades of teens as well as adults? What is it that continues to speak to readers, not only in the competitive world of New York private schools, but to kids in Nebraska, California and Montana as well (this may be changing) ? Why do those of us who read it more years back than we’d like to remember and, picking it up again, still find plenty of laughs, poignancy and situations to identify with?
Salinger’s Holden Caulfield does what all adolescents do: struggle to define identity (see Erik Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis). Holden’s struggle overwhelms him. What teenager can’t empathize with his alienation? The book is full of things that teenagers still hear: “frequent warnings to start applying myself” (“applying?”…what does that mean?), and “life being a game” ( “Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game all right–I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side….”). Sexual identity adds confusion, lots of confusion: “Sex is something I just don’t understand. I swear to God I don’t” and, “In my mind, I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw.” Holden’s sensitivity leads him to find the importance attached to the innocuous discouraging. “If somebody, some girl in an awful looking hat, for instance, comes all the way to New York — from Seattle, Washington for God’s sake–and ends up getting up early to see the goddamn first show at Radio City Music Hall, it makes me so depressed I can’t stand it.” Then there’s hypocrisy. Remember Ossenburger, the Pencey graduate who made “a pot of dough in the undertaking business”? How in his address to the students, “He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs”?
Phonies. They’re the bane of Holden’s existence. And who’s the biggest phony? “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life,” Holden says. Remember him on the train home feeding manure to Ernie Morrow’s mother about how great her son was? (“Her son was doubtless the biggest bastard that ever went to Pencey, in the whole crumby history of the school.”) Somehow, we know we aren’t really who we think we are (Holden: “I’m quite illiterate, but I read alot.”), a realization that puts us in Caulfield-like crisis. This is the “fidelity” stage of Erikson’s personality theory. Society’s push to make us conform puts Holden in a quandary. Where do the ducks in Central Park go when the pond is frozen? Why does Holden wear his red hunting cap with his pajamas?
That the story is told with humor and a certain spoken rhythm adds to its authenticity. Salinger pioneered the irreverent, scatological humor so prevalent in movie comedies of the last several decades (“The only good part of the speech was right in the middle of it….all of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me, Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart. It was a very crude thing to do, in chapel and all…”). The swearing–still the bane of high school librarians everywhere–not only adds realism but a sense of the phoniness directed towards teens. “I toleja about that. I don’t like that type of language,” says the woman that Holden dances with in his hotel’s lounge. Holden’s relationship to adults–his parents, cab drivers, waiters, elevator operator and prostitute–contrasted with that to his 10-year-old sister Phoebe seems too idealistic, as if children could never be mean or phony. But it stands as a symbol of innocence and genuineness, a nostalgic cry for our lost childhood.
The book’s central image, the catcher in the rye keeping children from going over the edge, speaks to this nostalgia. In my case, it led to a life dedicated to working with children, a result that was a slight misinterpretation of what Salinger probably intended. But right reading of the image or wrong, my life was changed. Salinger’s other books didn’t affect me as deeply, though I loved them well. The Nine Stories, Raise High the Roof Beam ,Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction were lessons on the sometimes radical actions that come of identity confusion and the use of those actions as symbol for larger meaning. Franny and Zooey introduced us to a type of specific yet undefinable spirituality that has since been embraced by writers ranging from Isabelle Allende to Jim Harrison. As good as these books are, they seem footnotes in Salinger’s career. But Holden Caulfield? He’s our guru.–Cabbage Rabbit
UPDATE: Adam Gopnik’s sparkling Salinger “Postscript” in the February 8th issue of The New Yorker sums up Salinger’s writing better than anything else we’ve read. He writes of Salinger’s ear for American dialogue, his “essential gift for joy” and, how “that amid the malice and falseness of social life, redemption rises from clear speech, and childlike enchantment, from all the forms of unselfconscious innocence that still surround us,” statements that explain Salinger’s fascination with children and his reluctance to paint them or their experience as perfect. “writing, real writing,” he says, ” is done not from some seat of fussy moral judgment but with the eye and ear and heart; no American writer will ever have a more alert ear, a more attentive eye, or a more ardent heart than his.” Note to writers (including self): Forget that MFA, “high-hearted” moral posturing and all the other (to borrow Holden’s word ) crap and start paying closer attention to what you hear from those around you as well as your own heart.