J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

When J.D. Salinger died on January 27th, I decided to read The Catcher in the Rye.  I had tried some years ago, but it just didn’t connect.  I’m not prudish in my reading, but I do believe there is a line that we should not cross in terms of language and content.  To put it mildly, Holden Caulfield’s language in the book is deplorable, which is one of the reasons it is the subject of such controversy and has been since it first appeared in 1951.  It is also the main reason I quit reading the work the last time I started.

Yet I decided to read it again for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because it is a landmark in American pop-culture and it still sells 250,000 copies a year (it has sold something like 65 million copiesall told).

The appeal of the book is not hard to see.  It is a fascinating account of teenage angst and existential vacuity, and its mammoth reception reveals that, at least to some extent, people resonate with these aspects of Caulfield’s plight (if such it can be called).

Caulfield is part wander-lust, part nihilist, part hormones, part slacker, and part tender-hearted.  He has failed out of yet another school and decides to take a few days in New York City before having to face the inevitable meeting with his parents.  Along the way he encounters such diverse figures as a sentimental and discouraged teacher, a slew of largely unlikeable classmates, a pimp and prostitute, a couple of irritated cab drivers, two nuns, the mother of one of his classmates, a girlfriend (kind of), a possibly homosexual former teacher, and , most significantly, Caulfield’s sister, Phoebe.  It is a story of a young man’s observations, distractions, and obsessions.  Most of all, it is the story of a young man’s decline and prospects for maturation (or not).

The meaning of Salinger’s book has been famously debated for almost sixty years now, and I, for one, do not claim to have great insights into the work.  I will say, however, the Caulfield strikes me as infuriating but oddly understandable.  The ADD (as we would call it today) is charming in its own weird way and the pessimism is, to me anyway, understandable.  Who hasn’t felt that the world is full of “phonies” and hypocrisy?  Who hasn’t evaluated people and movies and life events with the same kind of insular and idiosyncratic critique that Caulfield shows?

I do find it significant and hopeful that Caulfield seems impressed by the genuineness of the two nuns.  I also find it significant that Caulfield is enraged at the the thought of his roomate compromising a girl he knows.  I was moved by Caulfield’s shock at the crude words written on the walls of his sister’s school and his small but significant efffort at wiping the words away.  Most of all, I appreciate his honesty with his sister, Phoebe, and his return home to face the consequences of his actions.

In many ways, it is a sad book.  In many ways, it is very insightful.  Also, in ways that probably many people will not want to admit, it is a very accurate book showing us what is in the hearts and minds of many of our neighbors…and, at times, of our own selves.

Caulfield says at one point in the book that he likes Jesus ok, but that the disciples frustrate him.  It was just one of many disjointed thoughts that we are privileged to observe, but it, of course, gets closest to the answer that Caulfield, and all of us, need.

A strange, interesting, sad, and thought-provoking book.  There is a kind of significance about this book, and a haunting insightfulness that I do not regret encountering…but I will not let my daughter read it, nor will I read it again.

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