Between high school and college I read The Catcher in the Rye five times.
This was unusual for me. I don’t typically read a book more than once. There are just too many good books that I haven’t gotten to yet. But I became obsessed. In the days before the Web or even the online catalog, I would go to my college library and ferret out bound issues of The New Yorker from the 1940s and ’50s in search of uncollected Salinger stories.
So I was intrigued recently when my older son, a high school sophomore, was assigned to read Catcher for English class. I was curious to hear what he might think about it and whether it would be meaningful for him in any way similar to the way it was for me.
My experience tells me Salinger had his finger on something essential, an insight that transcends his time and place and offers a valuable perspective about the challenges of adolescence and of modernity.
Salinger is not much in favor anymore. Catcher in particular is singled out as irrelevant, the pointless rant of a disaffected adolescent who lives in extreme privilege. I find this perspective untenable, but tried not to communicate any expectations about how my son, Thomas, should feel about it. We didn’t discuss it much while he was reading it.
In a paper submitted for a seminar discussion, Thomas says that Holden “thinks everything is fake, everyone is acting like someone they aren’t, and there isn’t very much of anything in the world that is truly what it should be.”
Elsewhere, Thomas writes, “Holden has strict ideas about how society works, and he conforms his public actions to how he thinks he should act, and often not to how he actually is.”
Holden accuses a lot of people of being phonies. This is probably one of his most memorable attributes. But he’s wildly inconsistent himself. For example, he stresses that he hates movies, but seems up on current cinema and talks at length about movies he’s seen. He boasts about his seductiveness, but acknowledges that “sex is something I just don’t understand.”
But where Thomas found real traction with the book was in Holden’s sense of alienation.
“Every single person’s biggest want, hope, dream,” Thomas says, “is to be heard. To be listened to by someone else and to have their feelings validated. One of the most frustrating feelings is when you’re feeling really sad or angry about something and you try to talk to someone about it, but they aren’t listening.” As Holden says, “If somebody at least listens, it’s not too bad.”
Perhaps the only character about whom Holden has nothing bad to say is his younger sister, Phoebe. It’s only when he’s with her that he stops posturing and ruminating. “She always listens when you tell her something. And the funny part is she knows, half the time, what the hell you’re talking about,” he says.
Thomas’ assessments of the book and of Holden’s character track closely with my own. But what’s interesting is this is not how I felt about the book when I read it at his age. I was a more typical teenage reader, on one hand a literature-obsessed kid who loved the way Holden talks, but who also thought Holden’s casual disrespect for authority was funny.
There’s so much more to the book than that. What struck me when I read it again in my 30s was the extent to which Holden is devastated by the death of his brother, Allie. He tells us early in the book that, the night Allie died, Holden broke all of the windows in the garage and then spent the night there, that he’d tried to break the windows out of the family car but failed because his hands were already broken. He says later that he missed Allie’s funeral because he’d been hospitalized for his hand injury.
I hadn’t remembered it that way. I know there are other readers who have picked up on this. But the formal criticism too often ignores or makes short mention of it.
Small references occur throughout the story. Phoebe’s hair is “a little bit like Allie’s was.” His friend Jane Gallagher liked Allie. His mother has been very nervous since Allie died. Holden couldn’t stand going with his parents to visit Allie’s grave.
Beneath the swagger and the insolence, Holden is really an uncertain and sensitive teen. Thomas argues that, “Despite [his] cynicism, Holden wants deeply to be accepted by society.”
I think Thomas is right. Holden heartily wants not only to be taken seriously by the adult world but to be worthy of it. That he doesn’t know how and can’t trust anybody to guide him is both his challenge and his tragedy.
Hassett is librarian at Luther Jackson Middle School in Fairfax County.
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