J.D. Salinger died today, and as one whose soul is bound to part of his mind through my love for Catcher in the Rye, I feel that I should pay an homage to the man who gave the world Holden Caulfield.
Warning: there are spoilers below. This post is intended for A) people who have finished reading Catcher in the Rye, B) people who never intend to read it, or C) who intend to read it but don't mind having that experience knowing background information.
I love the Catcher in the Rye. Those who find it unappealing usually don't like Holden's initial negativity or cussing, and some of the exposition can seem meandering. Holden positions himself as an unreliable narrator: "I am the most terrific liar you ever saw." (Which, interestingly, is in direct opposition to Fitzgerald's narrator Nick Carraway: "I am one of the few honest people I have ever known." Oh how I love thinking about Catcher and Gatsby together---they are two sides of the same thematic coin: alientation, loss of innocence, loss of the ideal, etc). So we know Holden is unstable. To me, that makes the book more exciting: Salinger, through Holden, draws our attention to the instability of creating personal or fictional narratives. Why should we, as audience or reader, trust the narratives of another?
The whole telos and mystery of the novel is this: why is Holden unstable? Why has he been kicked out of so many schools? Why does he feel "lousy" and "crumby?" Why does his head hurt so much?
We learn quickly enough that Holden's little brother died in the recent past. That begins to explain some of Holden's behaviors, but it doesn't quite reveal Holden's full psychology. Patient readers have to wait until the end to discover all of the layers about this character. I love that Salinger waits and waits to reveal crucial information. In the last few pages, we realize that Holden's whole narrative has been given to us from a mental institution---that he has gone insane, by someone's standards, although he insists that he is not crazy to feel the way he does about humanity.
Salinger is brilliant. He has put his readers in the role of psychoanalyst, and my first desire upon reaching the end was to re-read the book from start to finish again, now knowing what I knew about Holden's location.
Is Holden crazy? Or is he more sane than all of us? He goes to meet his little sister, Phoebe, at her school, and when he does, he sees graffiti on the wall (omission of the full curse word is my notation):
"But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody'd written'F--- you' on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them---all cockeyed, naturally---what it meant, and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days..."
Holden goes on to say that he wishes he could punish the creep who wrote the slur or even rub it off with his own hand, but he finds himself gutless to do either---and this makes him feel, in his own words, depressed.
Shortly thereafter, he goes to a museum and has a similar experince:
"I was the only one left in the tomb then. I sort of liked it, in a way. It was so nice and peaceful. Then, all of a sudden, you'd never guess what I saw on the wall. Another 'F--- you.' It was written with a red crayon or something.... That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write 'F--- you.'"
I felt the same way today at the Wild Animal Park with Katie (post to come later tonight). We were looking at a gorilla and baby gorilla statue together, and Katie was pretending to feed them and was hugging them and loving them in all her innocent delight. Two separate times when we were visiting, two groups of 4th-5th grade boys came up and started making lewd comments about the mother gorilla's breasts. So different from Katie's pure joy... It made me feel sick to my stomach. The first time it happened, I wanted to cry... That such disrespect and vulgarity and lack of oneness with nature and beauty could intrude on us that way. I felt exactly like Holden. Exactly. I was reminded of him, before I came home and knew that Salinger had died.
So is Holden insane? Or is he right to feel depressed about human nature? He is probably the most pure character in the novel, and this is one reason why he suffers from alienation. We, being acculturated to the world around us, view Holden as extremely troubled in the beginning of the novel---but is Salinger making the point that, by expecting Holden to start fitting in a little more, we are the ones who are most troubled?
Phoebe asks Holden what he wants to be when he grows up. Holden misremembers a line from a Robert Burns poem:
"I thought it was 'If a body catch a body,' I said. Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands 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 catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff....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."
Holden wishes he could spare children "the fall"---the loss of their innocence. He wants to preserve purity in the world, but he knows he cannot. He begins to think like the rest of us: that he is crazy. In a world that thrives on drama and heartache, maybe he is crazy. Or is he? Salinger criticizes the baseness of human nature very roundly here. We're willing to lock Holden in a mental institution because he expects more of human nature than we can ever give him. He wants to save innocence from the intrusions of those who would seek to corrupt it, but like he discovers with being unable to rub out the graffiti on the wall, he is not powerful or courageous enough to do so. Society is too strong; the expectations of conformity weaken and condemn him.
Holden is one of my favorite characters in all of literature. So often I feel I could be him and let myself be overwhelmed by the forces of despair and animosity and perverseness. Unlike Holden, though, I have realized that while no physical place might be a place of complete peacefulness, there are places in your mind and heart that are unassailable if you put certain mental gateways in place.
I have learned, especially this past year, that no one can stop hateful people from entering her sanctuary---whether through physical trespass or through merely trespassing with hateful or untrue words. But the fact is, Holden is not crazy---and nor are the rest of us who really champion the beautiful and the good. Let the negative people believe that everyone thinks and operates as they do, or that we are all schemers or would use others. The problem with being a person like that is that you assume the rest of us operate like you do. Salinger shows us a character who takes more of a stand than any other character from the realism literature genre I have ever met.
Not everyone is in it for just himself, and as Salinger shows us, to the rest of the world, being true in heart, or trying to be a good person, might appear to be insanity.
Salinger was a genius.
When I first started teaching, I taught the third level of the three English 11s. There was AP, advanced, and regular. I taught regular. Lots of people had given up on those kids. Over the year, they would reveal much to me about that. Perhaps I was partly naive, and perhaps I had guts of steel, but I walked into those classes with many of the same expectations I would later have for my AP students. They were never "throw-away" kids to me. I did a horrible job teaching them The Crucible, but as I began to understand more about the craft of teaching, I taught them Gatsby and Catcher in the second semester. They could give presentations and analyze motif with the best of them. It helped that I loved both books, like really loved them. And it helped that we had a very luxurious pace.
I will never forget one of my students, Mike. In the beginning, he came in everyday with his hoody on, didn't want to make eye contact, didn't want to be there. I have a personal philosophy that you cannot teach a child that you don't treat like a human, so I would stand at my door everyday and say hello to every student. He didn't meet my gaze for a whole semester.
And didn't meet it for most of second semester. That's okay: as a teacher, you keep going. Finally we started reading Catcher, and something clicked for him. He started responding "Hello" back at me. At the end of Catcher, he asked me if he had to return it to the school library and if not, what would happen to him. The next day, I gave him his own copy to keep, and he said it was the first book he'd ever really read and that he loved it.
But that wasn't me... That was the gift of the author Salinger, who died today. Thank you for touching us all with your words.