Missing Everybody: Holden Caufield at 60

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Saturday is the 60th anniversary of the publication of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

When J. D. Salinger passed away in early 2010, his most well-known character, Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, was called “America’s best-known literary truant” by the New York Times[1]; “perpetually at war with adulthood” by The Times of London[2]; and “the original angry young man” by Time magazine: “Salinger created Caulfield at the very moment that American teenage culture was being born…A whole generation of rebellious youths discharged themselves into one particular rebellious youth”[3]. As Normal Mailer, in significantly less charitable terms, once put it, Salinger is “no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school” (467).

Holden’s influence has indeed thrown many millions of American teens into active, mostly aimless rebellion, and seen multiple generations of Americans through their “difficult age”–both behaviorally and historically. It’s easy to mark him as the standard-bearer for the adolescent malcontent that has preoccupied America since roughly the end of the Second World War. In fact, it’s too easy. Like a Zen koan, it manages to un-answer itself. Being misunderstood is Holden’s milieu, so calling him a hormone case or a passing phase and filing him away in the young adult section of life underestimates his impact.

Many who go in for the Prototypical American Teen interpretation of Holden follow up with a second approach: the personal memoir. One of the great hazards of any sort of extended look at Salinger, and Holden in particular, is the temptation to confess and chronicle our own experiences with his stories. Readers will inevitably relive first contacts with Holden, re-readings of Catcher, teenage rebellions, years-later reflections. There is an apparent need to document the ways in which Salinger’s works generated a response – sometimes love, sometimes hate, sometimes a murky synthesis of both – that has led them to sit behind a typewriter and chart the whole affair.

A third approach – the academic critique – provides the gravitas that elevates Catcher above the category of young adult fiction. But literary critics who view him as the modern-day Quixote or a case study for David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd tend to strip an essential energy from Holden. A 1991 collection titled New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye features one author – a “college undergraduate in the early fifties” – who writes, half ironically, that he is not alone in seeing Holden Caulfield as “a royal pain, an affront to my generation, which was prone to assume supine positions in the name of material well-being.”[4] Another writer sees Holden as the consummate Preppy, a crisis of institutionalized education and conformist social class, the “anxiety-ridden adolescent within the particular fraction of the middle class whose behavior and psychology are the substance of [the novel].”[5] Yet another reads Holden as a post-apocalyptic journeyman whose Christmastime loneliness foretells nuclear winter.  Not surprisingly, none of these feels quite right. There has been no shortage of critical analysis about Catcher (around seventy articles were written on the novel in its first ten years), and I’m sure for many readers its absorption by the academic world legitimizes J.D. Salinger’s place in the American canon. But if critics aren’t always sold on why we should be reading J.D. Salinger, readers of J.D. Salinger need not be sold on critics. I’ve enjoyed reading and writing academic essays in the past, but I find myself wondering what the point is when I read about Catcher. With Holden, Salinger was trying to demonstrate something about the human condition. But Holden is all too human to perform that service neatly.

Perhaps the most irresistible interpretation is the biographical. For those looking to unravel the mystery of J.D. Salinger himself, Holden Caulfield is Exhibit A. He is the source waters from which so much of Salinger’s work flows, and it’s easy see in The Catcher in the Rye, as well as many of the early stories involving Holden, themes that Salinger would fixate on for two decades of published fiction, and probably a few unpublished decades after that.

Holden is the most intimately biographic of Salinger’s characters. Salinger and his alter-ego Buddy Glass may share living situations and a library card, but Salinger and Holden share a heart. There are, without doubt, clear connections. Salinger grew up in the same time period, in the same area of New York. Both struggled in school, Salinger himself under-performing and dropping out of several different learning institutions. Valley Forge, where Salinger finally settled in to his studies, is a believable model for Pencey Prep: Both schools were run by a fundraising-obsessed headmaster (though which private schools are not?); Salinger roomed with an athletic, handsome young man who may plausibly have become Stradlater in the novel; one Valley Forge student jumped to his death from a dorm window, the same way James Castle dies in Catcher; and another student was expelled and sent to a West Coast mental institution.[6]

Not long after having Holden imagine running off to Vermont or Massachusetts and living in cabins where “I could chop all our own wood in the wintertime and all,” Salinger pulled his own head-for-the-hills act, moving to rural Cornish, New Hampshire. In Cornish, Salinger spoke with a high school student named Shirley Blaney, on assignment – so he thought – for her school newspaper. Blaney asked Salinger if his recent novel was autobiographical, to which he responded with evasion, “sort of…I was much relieved when I finished it. My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book, and it was a great relief telling people about it.” When the interview eventually ran not in the high school circular but the town’s local newspaper, Salinger was outraged. It was then that he began building a large fence around his home.

This biographical approach is as perilous as it is tempting. The many admirers who trekked to Salinger’s compound in the countryside no doubt believed Holden’s description of a great author as “a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it” would make Salinger sympathetic to their intrusion. They were wrong. The person they were usually looking for was some aged version of Holden Caulfield, and not the unwelcoming and stone-silent author they found. Ian Hamilton, Salinger’s first unofficial biographer, ran into similar difficulties, finding in his research that the author was “getting less and less lovably Holden-ish each day.”[7] Following the author’s death, each new biography or unearthed letter tends toward a similar effect. But in the end, it is Holden’s misunderstood isolation and touchiness that allow most people to forgive Salinger his own social antagonism and general crankiness. It’s Holden that allows us to care in the first place.


[1] (McGrath, Charles. “J.D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91.”
28 January 2010. New York Times.)

[2] (Editors. “J.D. Salinger: Author of The Catcher in the Rye.” 29
January 2010. Times Online.)

[3] (Lacayo, Richard. “J.D. Salinger Dies: Hermit Crab of American
Letters.” 29 January 2010. Time Magazine Online.)

[4] (Seelye, John. “Holden in the Museum.” New Essays on The Catcher in
the Ry
e. Ed. Jack Salzman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
23-34.)

[5] (Brookeman, Christopher. “Pencey Preppy: Cultural Codes in The
Catcher in the Rye.” New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye. Ed. Jack
Salzman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 57-76.)

[6] (Grunwald, Henry Anatole. “The Invisible Man.” Salinger: A Critical
and Personal Portrait
. Ed. Henry Anatole Grunwald. New York: Harper &
Brothers, 1962. 1-21.)

[7] (Hamilton, Ian. In Search of J.D. Salinger. New York: Random House, 1988. 66.)

***

This is an excerpt from “The Real Holden Caulfield,” an essay available at Fiction Advocate.


Michael Moats completed his graduate thesis, a collection of essays on J.D. Salinger, and received his MFA from Emerson College in Boston. He recently reviewed J.D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski for AGNI Online, and has published letters to the editor in the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine. He runs the blog www.tradepaperbacks.net. More from this author →