Driving home from work one night last week, I heard somebody on the radio talking about The Catcher in the Rye. I guessed—correctly as it turned out—that the author had died. What I couldn’t remember, momentarily, was whether his name was J. D. Salinger or Holden Caulfield.
Like millions of other adolescents, I was obliged to read Salinger’s famous novel at precisely the age it might have done the most harm: 16. Fortunately, I hated it. I didn’t know why I hated it, exactly. Partly it had to do with the sort of boys (it was only boys) who liked it. One or two of them, as I remember, had some high-minded critical reasons to argue for its greatness. Of course, they wouldn’t have used an unironic term such as “great” to describe any book, especially one that had been assigned to them in an English class; but it was apparent The Catcher in the Rye had moved them in some way.
At the time, I assumed its appeal was based mainly on the fact that Holden Caulfield—the aimless and alienated narrator who escapes from boarding school and wanders the streets of Manhattan for several nights—used words such as “knockers” and “goddam” and drank and smoked himself into a daze. There was something thrilling about being told to read such a book for a class.
But there was more to its appeal than that. Even I admitted that it was funny, and when you’re a 16-year-old boy, funniness is everything. “All of a sudden, I did something I shouldn’t have,” Holden says at one point, in the middle of a fight with a girlfriend. “I laughed. And I have one of those very loud, stupid laughs. I mean if I ever sat behind myself in a movie or something, I’d probably lean over and tell myself to please shut up.”
Holden’s is a kind of foursquare humor, but when I read the book again last weekend, I found myself laughing at the same lines. And there’s something perceptive about it, too—perceptive in some clumsy, unclever way that grabs your attention. “It’s a funny thing about girls,” says Holden. “Every time you mention some guy that’s strictly a bastard—very mean, or very conceited and all—and when you mention it to the girl, she’ll tell you he has an inferiority complex. Maybe he has, but that still doesn’t keep him from being a bastard, in my opinion.”
There’s something impressive, too, in Salinger’s ability to mimic the sound of a teenaged boy’s language. Everything is exaggerated with random numbers: People tell him things “about eighty-five times,” a play is “about five hundred thousand years in the life of one old couple.” He restates his own insignificant observations, and even if they’re plainly false or exaggerated, he declares: “I’m not kidding.” He uses profanity precisely where it doesn’t belong. The narrative is soaked with bad grammar and the stupid verbiage of youth culture (“I like Jesus and all. . . . It depressed the holy hell out of me . . . she’s always very well-dressed and has lipstick on and all that crap”).
As a mimic, Salinger was Ring Lardner’s equal. The sound and texture of Holden Caulfield’s meandering narrative comes as close to the real thing as it’s possible to come. That’s what gives the book its power over the minds of emotionally raw young people. To say that The Catcher in the Rye is a powerful book, however, isn’t to say that it’s a good one. As it is commonly read and taught, anyhow, it’s actually a thoroughly bad one.
By calling it “bad” I don’t mean that it confirms teenaged boys in their self-absorption and moral laziness—although there’s a pretty good argument to be made that it does. High-school English teachers assign Catcher because it “speaks” to young people, or because they “connect” with it. That’s true; it does and they do—sometimes. But one suspects that it’s not the kind of “connection” these teachers intend, or ought to intend.
Writes Ian Hamilton, in his splendid book about Salinger:
I remember that for many months after reading The Catcher at the age of seventeen I went around being Holden Caulfield. I carried his book everywhere with me as a kind of talisman. It seemed to me funnier, more touching, and more right about the way things were than anything else I’d ever read. . . . The Catcher was the book that taught me what I ought already to have known: that literature can speak for you, not just to you. . . . It was something of a setback when I eventually found out that I was perhaps the millionth adolescent to have felt this way.
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:
He’d be charming as hell and all. Except if some boy had little old funny-looking parents. You should’ve seen the way he did with my roommate’s parents. I mean if a boy’s mother was sort of fat or corny-looking or something, and if somebody’s father was one of those guys that wear those suits with very big shoulders and corny black-and-white shoes, then old Haas would just shake hands with them and give them a phony smile and then he’d go talk, for maybe a half an hour, with somebody else’s parents. I can’t stand that stuff. It drives me crazy.
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.