Almost 60 years of misunderstanding "The Catcher In The Rye"
By Lars Trodson
'Two generations of readers have been told -- no, mandated to believe -- that Holden Caulfield is a rebel -- or, at the very least, rebellious. And so it is that two generations of readers of "The Catcher In the Rye" have misread, and been cheated out of the truly redemptive power and real meaning of the book.
Holden is not rebelling against anything; he is simply a young man trying to cope with the death of his beloved brother Allie. That is the real theme of the book, and the continued mislabeling and misunderstanding of "The Catcher In the Rye" is frustrating. The misreading of the book is now also costing it its most valued audience: young people who need to know that there is hope even against the most formidable obstacles of depression and loss.
That message is timeless.
Yet an article in The New York Times, titled "Get A Life, Holden", is egregious. Would any feeling person, any sensible person, tell a teenaged boy -- Holden is 16 or 17 years old -- to "get a life" as he was trying to recover from the loss of a brother?
They would not. But rather than examine the actual theme of the book, the article foments the most tired cliches about Salinger's accomplishment. The writer, Jennifer Schuessler, calls Holden an "alienated teenager..." He is the "paridigmatic teenager..." Let us hope that the loss of a brother so young is a never a "paridigmatic" experience.
But if we look at Holden through the lens of the loss of his brother Allie we can learn that even the most extreme grief can be recovered from. That is a lesson worth teaching.
The death of Allie seems to always be forgotten when discussing the book. It's Holden's misadventures, his loss of the foils before the fencing match, his encounter with the prostitute, his being kicked out of school, that seem to get the most lasting attention. But the death of his brother and his reaction to it is the core of his story.
No one seems to realize the book is one long scream for help and not a reflection of teenaged rebellion. Near the end of the book, when Holden sneaks in and talks to his sister Phoebe, she implores him to name one thing he likes.
"You don't like anything that's happening." It made me even more depressed when she said that. "Yes I do. Yes I do. Sure I do. Don't say that. Why the hell do you say that?" "Because you don't..."
After a few minutes of reflection, Holden is lost in thought and can't come up with an answer.
"You can't even think of one thing." "Yes, I can. Yes, I can." "Well, do it then." "I like Allie.," I said. "And I like what I'm doing right now. Sitting here with you, and talking about stuff, and thinking about stuff, and --" "Allie's dead -- you always say that! If somebody's dead and everything, and in Heaven, then it isn't really --"
"I know he's dead! Don't you think I know that? I can still like him, though, can't I? Just because somebody's dead, you don't just stop liking them, for God's sake -- especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know that're alive and all."
The title of "The Catcher In the Rye" comes from Holden's misremembering of a children's poem, and it is obvious that he sees himself as the catcher in the rye to prevent any more young people from getting hurt or dying.
"You know what I'd like to be? I mean if I had my goddamn choice?" "What? Stop swearing."
"You know that song, 'If a body catch a body comin' through the rye' I'd like --" "It's "If a body meet a body coming through the rye'!'" old Phoebe said. "It's a poem. By Robert Burns."
And Holden tells Phoebe how he interprets the poem:
"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some kind of game in this big field of rye and all. Thousand 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 are going over the crazy 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 all 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." Old Phoebe didn't say anything for a long time. Then, when she said something, all she said was "Daddy's going to kill you." "I don't give a damn if he does."
In this passage we not only see why people thought Holden was unstable, but we also now know the reason for his disaffection. He knows his brother Allie was pure, and genuine, and what he sees around him are people who began with this same purity only to grow older and become fake -- the number one example being his brother D.B. who started as a real writer only to become a "prostitute" out in Hollywood.
Holden's entire point of view, from everyone he meets, begins with the question as to why everyone and anyone can't be the person they started out as. Holden may very well feel that about himself.
It is difficult, at the very least, to call Holden a "rebel" when all he does is emulate the behavior of the most conformist adults around him. He swears, he smokes, he goes to bars, he chases girls, he reads books, he's unfailingly polite to adults. This is rebellion? Commentators and professors really need to stop saying he's a rebel.
Holden has no social constructs he wishes to dismantle and his moral architecture has no design. His reputation as a rebel is borne out of the fact that he is a pointed social critic, and an especially funny one.
We get a sense of this at the beginning of the book, when he meets Mr. Spencer, the headmaster of the school he has just been kicked out of, Pencey Prep.
"Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules." "Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it." Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it is a game, all right -- I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game.
If you have a son, or brother, who dies before his or her time, then you will think there are no rules, and that is anything but a game.
Allie has an intense hold on Holden; he does not want to let go. When Holden has to write an essay, he chooses his brother Allie's baseball mitt as the subject.
"My brother Allie had this left-handed fielder's mitt. He was left handed. The thing that was descriptive about it, though, was that he had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere. In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he'd have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up at bat. He's dead now. He got leukemia and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You'd have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was about as 50 times as intelligent. He was terrifically intelligent. His teachers were always writing letters to my mother, telling her what a pleasure it was having a boy like Allie in their class. And they weren't just shooting the crap. They really meant it. But it wasn't just that. He was the most intelligent member in the family. He was also the nicest, in lots of ways. He never got mad at anybody. People with red hair are supposed to get mad very easily, but Allie never did, and he had very red hair."
You try to live up to that kind of reputation. "A boy like Allie in their class..." You try to live with that. You might want to try to give up, too, but it is not rebellion.
In The New York Times article, a teacher by the name of Julie Johnson in Winnetka, Illinois, says her students no longer have the patience to put up with Holden. "In general, they do not have much sympathy for alienated anti-heroes..."
This is sad, and too bad, because when Holden's story continues to be seen through the slight, and pathetically obvious reading of "rebellion", then students today will not be aware of the redemptive qualities of the story.
Holden has gone through a personal hell, and he has failed badly, and he wishes, yes, that the words "Fuck you" should be on his tombstone. And, yes, his language may be out of date, and he has no ability to text or call his friends on his cellphone, or to air his grief on Facebook or Twitter. But he is hopeful.
"I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I'm supposed to go to next fall, but I don't feel like it."
Millions of readers, including myself, have taken away from that slight passage a sign of hope. It is not romantic hope. If teachers realize that "The Catcher In the Rye" is a story of redemption rather than a self-limiting story of teenaged rebellion than the novel will be better served.
We all need to remember what Holden says on the second-to-last page of the novel. By this time, we have seen Holden through failure, disappointment, the death of his brother, the loss of friends, his expulsion from school, and confusion.
Yet, as he stands in the rain, as he watches his sister Phoebe ride the carousel, he tells us, those generations of readers both past and present, that he feels "... so damn happy, if you want to know the truth."
Please, please let us all remember that.