Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

It's a strange feeling to go back to something so adolescent, by definition, at a time when adolescence is far more memory than reality. It's easy enough to see why I fell in love with this book when I was 15. The language is a torrential force in its own right, that cocky, wheedling, judgmental, insecure fine whine of the teenager in living angst—the invisible, the unheard, yearning to be seen and heard. Holden Caulfield is no one I would like to know anymore (if I ever did—more like I felt I was him) (there's a telling parenthetical). When I see him in public now I go in the other direction as soon as possible. And yet it's impossible not to have at least some affection for the poor guy. Details I never noticed before: how big he is, over six foot two. How often he uses the word "really," like a tic. The book is known for its use of the word "phony" but I'd bet "really" is in there even more. I really would. That singing narrative voice was J.D. Salinger's great gift, I think, and his most famous novel is one of the best examples. I'm almost, not quite, as well-read as Holden Caulfield now, so I caught more of the literary references. The Catcher in the Rye is narrow, in a way, with its Manhattan and East Coast preoccupations. It's a novel about an upper-middle-class prep school kid who's a little high-strung. If I had only his problems I'd be doing a lot better already—it's open to that kind of class-based derision, I can see that better now. Yet it transcends prep school and Manhattan and class. Holden Caulfield gets inside your head as much as any other first-person fictional character, and he's on a profound quest too, looking for significance in a world of phony surface. He reminds us of that adolescent idealism whose momentum, if we are lucky, carries us through middle age, when all the hard realities strike. It's easy to snort over his small problems, particularly the ones he creates himself in his own fatuous stupidity, such as an encounter with a prostitute, or picking a hopeless fight with his dormitory roommate. He is on a hard downward spiral and he's taking us with him. That's the trajectory here. According to Wikipedia, The Catcher in the Rye has sold 65 million copies since its publication in 1951, and is still moving 250,000 a year. Amazing. So it is off its peaks but still widely read. I'm surprised by that, honestly, because it's often dated, especially in its treatment of women and girls. But Holden Caulfield remained compelling on a recent visit, if more cringeworthy more often than I remembered, and it's still attracting new readers too, so it must be doing something right. P.S. When are we going to see the posthumous Salinger manuscripts? Come on lawyers, we're counting on you.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Thanks for the update on this book, Jeff. It made a huge impression on me in my early-'60s teendom (I think I was most intrigued by narrator Holden Caulfield's determination to rip away all the "phoniness" of bourgeois life, catnip for an adolescent of course), but it faded away from my mind over the years, especially as Salinger quit publishing new works later in the '60s. I re-read "Franny and Zooey" a few years ago and was surprised that the characters who'd seemed to me to be such sophisticated grown-ups in 1962 now struck me as overindulged if not just plain immature, so I'd probably experience similar revaluations of Holden if I picked up "Catcher" again, as you did. Maybe I'll re-read "Nine Stories" before I go back to our featured title.

    I take it by your illustration that you have the standard-cover Bantam paperback edition of "Catcher" that's on so many of our bookshelves now. When I originally read the book, I had the 1953 Signet edition, whose cover has an archetypally 1950's-paperback-sleaze-promising painting of Holden, approaching a peep show in the bowels of the city. The funny thing was, Holden is wearing his ball cap backwards(!) like a baseball catcher, and I took that to be the meaning of the book's title at first. Nope, Salinger had loftier themes in store for us teens!

    -- Richard R.

  2. When I read it as a teen in the late '70s it struck me immediately as dated and little more than a sneering attitude. And a sneer not nearly as appealing as, say, James Dean or punk rock, to include both some b/f and after. But now, not having gone back to it, I'm sure some of that working class resentment you allude to played a significant role in setting me against it. I didn't hate it but it felt to me like an unhappy rich kid schtick from the get-go. I wouldn't be surprised if I appreciated it more now. By way of comparison, I remember liking quite a bit John Okada's "No No Boy" when I read it in the '90s. I remember thinking then that it was like the Japanese-American "Catcher in the Rye."