Scourge of Phonies
The teenage perspective of J. D. Salinger, 1919-2010.
Feb 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 21 • By BARTON SWAIM
Somehow I doubt that my sophomore English teacher—Sandy, as she allowed herself to be called by students—meant for the boys in her class to conclude that Holden Caulfield was “right about the way things were.” He finds everything irritating and preposterous that isn’t somehow convenient or pleasing to him at the moment, he takes for granted the importance of his banal observations, and the worth he assigns to other people has strictly to do with his petty and ever-changing likes and dislikes. All these vices may be pretty common in boys of a certain age—although only rarely are they all present in the same boy at the same time—but whether we need to invest them with the authority of Literature is a question worth asking.
In any case, the really corrosive thing about The Catcher in the Rye—at least to the extent that it speaks for its reader as opposed to upending that reader’s view of the world—is its narrator’s laughably shallow moral outlook. What’s always made the book so exciting to young people, especially to those who find the workings of society around them bewildering and arbitrary, is its honesty. Holden Caulfield is “authentic,” to use a cultural buzzword that once strangled the imaginations of young people like some parasitical plant.
His favorite epithet is “phony.” He denounces everything that has a trace of “phoniness” about it, which of course includes just about everything and everyone. “It’s full of phonies,” he says of a school from which he was ejected, “and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day.” The sum total of his morality amounts to little more than a rejection of “phoniness.” He thinks that he is the first person to notice that saying “Glad to’ve met you” to people doesn’t mean you were actually glad to have met them.
He remembers his headmaster with particular scorn:
The trouble with people who hate phoniness, of course, is that they are just as phony as the people whose phoniness they hate. If authenticity becomes your lodestar, you’ll seem anything but authentic. Even Holden’s sloppy grammar and teenaged diction look affected after 200 pages. After all, he’s curiously insistent—or should we speak of Salinger rather than his creation?—that he’s a widely read young man. He’s read Dickens, Hardy, Somerset Maugham, and Isak Dinesen. His roommate gets him to write his English composition for him. You don’t get to be an “ace composition writer,” as one former teacher calls him, by using bad grammar and writing “and all” after every adjective and describing everything you don’t like as “depressing as hell.”
In short, it’s a put-on. All the vulgar bravado, all the inveighing against “phony bastards,” is a conveniently faux philosophy for a kid who’s too lazy and self-important to admit, even to himself, that life’s not one great crime just because some things in it piss him off.
J. D. Salinger was among the most famous recluses in American literary history. He published no other novel, nothing at all since 1965, and relentlessly battled anyone who tried to republish his work or adapt it for film. I’ve sometimes wondered whether he saw something culpably ludicrous in the way schoolteachers, always desperate to convince pupils of literature’s “relevance,” force his book on the very people least capable of understanding its meaning. If that happened to a book of mine, I know I’d become a recluse. I’m not kidding.
Barton Swaim is the author, most recently, of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.