This 1951 novel is the story of a teenager and New York City. Plus his family and his friends. And a few strangers. Holden Caulfield is a precocious kid, a smart-aleck, and if he is also pretentious it is because he is insecure. Here is a brilliant portrait of adolescence, and one can understand why this work is a favorite of anyone under, say, thirty. When one’s own memories of adolescence are so recent.
But as a novel, this work resembles a one-trick pony. It is the story of Holden and his encounter after encounter with fellow students, professors, distant girl friends, two nuns, three tourist women, a prostitute, and finally his young sister Phoebe. And each meeting underscores Holden’s braggadocio, his immaturity, his false modesty, and his desperation to seek out and connect with someone. That is, each meeting with a different person is a variation on a common theme.
Where is this narrative going, I kept asking myself.
Finally, in the very last scene, with sister Phoebe riding the carousel in Central Park, we realize the sense of family that has been the context of all his interactions. He has been contacting all these people in lieu of his family. And each time, as he rationalizes his failure to connect with someone, he desperately seeks out someone else. He continues to make these attempts because he also seeks a connection that he cannot find with the adult world at home.
Holden has been talking about his parents throughout his narrative, as well as about his brothers, one of whom has died of leukemia, and about Phoebe. But he has been afraid to reach out to his family after being expelled from school for not passing his courses. For being thought as stupid. Which he obviously is not.
So why does he encounter failure when he reaches out to others? Perhaps because it is an adult relationship he seeks, but he is afraid of adulthood. One might add that he is afraid of adulthood because he is afraid of death, which has struck one older brother. But he is also afraid of the sex that represents adulthood and that motivates many of his adventures. And so he puts up a wall of cynicism to protect him from that adulthood.
But did Salinger need almost 300 pages to draw this portrait? Yes, these are brilliant pages. Yes, they perfectly capture a smart but troubled youth. Yes, the adolescent tone is remarkably consistent. But technical virtuosity for me goes only so far. Until the very end, this narrative remains on the surface. Once Holden’s shallowness is established, even with all the variations, the portrait goes no deeper.
The title is symbolic of the pleasures of youth, and of saving youth from entering the false world of adulthood. Holden misinterprets the Robert Burns poem, and dreams of children playing in a rye field at the edge of a cliff; and his job is to save these kids from falling off the cliff, meaning into adulthood. He is the catcher in the rye. One critic even suggests that at the end, Phoebe, although she is just a kid, becomes the catcher, because she has persuaded Holden to give up his naive plan to escape the adult world by fleeing out west and living as a deaf mute (so he doesn’t have to talk to anyone).
At one point, incidentally, Holden defends writing that goes off tangent, and introduces a new, disconnected subject. This to me is an indirect defense of his own narrative here, in which Holden not only seeks different characters to relate to but also introduces new subjects in his conversations with them when the talk is not going in the direction he wishes. Skipping about is also, presumably, the way a restless adolescent mind works.
In passing, I would also note that spiritual references hover over this narrative, as it does in many of Salinger’s works. The events here occur in the days leading up to Christmas, and he comments on Jesus and the Radio City Christmas show. Holden also encounters two nuns, who are portrayed sympathetically. And even the frequent “goddam” remarks remind us of the world of religion, along with a youth pretending to be an adult.
The vernacular, indeed, is characteristic of this book’s style. This work, for example, popularized the word “phony,” representing, according to Holden, anything in the adult world. Another pretense of that adult world is using “old” in front of the names of people he meets. Other choice phrases include “shoot the bull,” “chew the fat,” and “get a kick out of that.” All both reverberate with the times, and re-enforce the adolescence of Holden.
To sum up, the more I think about this novel, and the more critics I read, the more I accept that this is a deeper novel than what I thought it was while reading it. More thought went into Holden’s character than I realized, such as his self-protective alienation to avoid what he called being a phony adult. And I can even see this work’s comparison to The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, because it is narrated by an adolescent and is in the vernacular of the boyhood of its era. But Huckleberry Finn offers us glimpses of the world outside Huck, the social setting in which he lives, while Catcher in the Rye exists entirely within Holden Caulfield himself. It is a portrait of him rather than its era, and it also creates its own style rather than satirizes an earlier literary style.
This work does not prompt me to go back and reread other Salinger work. He is an author for younger readers. Indeed, he seems to have inspired some authors to write similarly about their own youth. But he was writing for another era. His was an era of innocence, an innocence that is captured here, but an innocence that no longer exists, an innocence, indeed, that his book has helped us move beyond. For, in its literature, that innocent world proscribed sex, proscribed profanity, and proscribed rebellion, all of which are abundant here. Yes, those aspects are understated, but Salinger in this work helped to open the literary door to this previously unacknowledged reality. He himself was no phony. (February, 2015)