Sleepless with Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”

There are advantages to battling sleeplessness, I suppose; one of those advantages is rereading great novels. I came across an old paperback of Salinger’s lacerating, hilarious, façade-shattering masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye in, of all places, Iraq. I’d read The Catcher in the Rye twice before, but this rereading was the most meaningful so far. C.S. Lewis, another enduring favorite for me, touched on the value of rereading great books: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally—and often far more—worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” Yes and amen. But how is Catcher great? In at least two ways, Catcher is a remarkable piece of fiction: 1) Salinger’s mastery of tone and 2) the way in which he explores how the sensitive person (artist/writer/musician, etc.) sees the nuances, details, and beauties in life that the mass of humanity tramples upon. This sensitivity to nuances alienates Holden from the less perceptive people around him.

First, Holden Caulfield is one of the most realized and believable characters with regard to tone in all of serious literature. He is as real to me as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, as real as Emma Bovary, as real as Santiago on his boat, as real as David Copperfield coming into his own, as real as Lear as he goes mad before his own family and kingdom, as real as Scout and Jem, as they gossip about Boo Radley.

Holden Caulfield is a 16-year-old boy, repeatedly expelled from prep school. Why? He doesn’t apply himself, as the adults in his life tell him. He does not play by the rules. He neglects most of his class assignments and focuses instead on writers and books he particularly appreciates (Thomas Hardy’s novels, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc.).

Holden passes his English classes, but even in those, his mind wanders too much; he neglects the discipline required to succeed in the prep school system. He learns more through self-study than he ever does in the classroom. He obsesses (not too strong a word?) about particulars and details 99% of the other students and faculty never notice and/or suppress. (More on this idea below.) But Holden’s speech and mind are believable.

In the passage below, Holden is visiting with his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, who has awarded Holden an “F” for his (Holden’s) admittedly shoddy work in class. Listen to the way Holden’s mind works:

Well, you could see he [Mr. Spencer] really felt pretty lousy about flunking me. So I shot the bull for a while. I told him I was a real moron, and all that stuff. I told him how I would’ve done the same thing if I’d been in his place, and how most people didn’t appreciate how tough it is being a teacher. That kind of stuff. The old bull.

   The funny thing is, though, I was sort of thinking of something else while I shot the bull. I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away. (pp. 12-13)

Holden knows his own immaturity with regard to his poor academic performance, but he respects the humanness of Mr. Spencer. He has connected with him in spite of not doing well in his class. Moreover, Holden’s thoughts are preoccupied with the ducks. Who cares for them? Of course any number of connections about providence may be asked here. Is there a caring God over all or are the ducks (and all of the cosmos by extension) alone?

And then, after we as readers sense Holden’s fatal flaw (he retreats from “the system” instead of accepting it, and making the best of it), we see how attuned and compassionate Holden is vis-a-vis his concern for the ducks in Central Park. Where do they go in winter, when the lagoon is frozen over?

How many 16-year-old boys’ minds work like that? You see a boy who uses words like “lousy” and “moron.” But then he frets over delicate creatures. Questions of providence, or the lack thereof, might be asked here.

Another scene where’s Holden’s tone is artfully displayed comes when he’s in New York City. He’s lonely for girls. (Remember, he’s sixteen.) He flirts with some fatuous girls in a hotel and dances with them. But inside, he knows he’s frittering his time because they’ve nothing to offer him. They are part of the “phonies,” too. The irony, of course, is that Holden is often likewise phony towards others. Listen to Salinger’s mastery of tone:

The one ugly one, Laverne, wasn’t too bad a dancer, but the other one, old Marty, was murder. Old Marty was like dragging the Statue of Liberty around the floor. The only way I could even half enjoy myself dragging her around was if I amused myself a little. So I told her I just saw Gary Cooper, the movie star, on the other side of the floor.

     “Where?” she asked me—excited as hell. “Where?”

     “Aw, you just missed him. He just went out. Why didn’t you look when I told you?”

She practically stopped dancing, and started looking over everybody’s heads to see if she could see him. 

“Oh, shoot!” she said. I’d just about broken her heart—I really had. I was sorry as hell I’d kidded her. Some people you shouldn’t kid, even if they deserve it. (p. 75)

Secondly, Salinger explores the deeper issues of Holden’s character. Salinger is suggesting something about the role of the artist in the world. He (the artist) differs from the masses of humanity in that he notices what most never consider and/or suppress. Holden is sensitive to the power of genuine friendship (his relationship with Mr. Spencer, e.g.) innocence (his sister Phoebe, e.g.) and to the vast difference between artifice (what Holden calls “phony”) and the genuine.

Allie, Holden’s deceased younger brother, exemplified the genuine—but he is gone. Allie had a baseball glove that he’d written poems on, and he’d read them when he was in the outfield. Now ask yourself: what would you think of a kid with poetry written on his baseball glove? Exactly. Seems odd. Sissy, perhaps. And if you thought that, you’re playing right into Salinger’s hands.

He is suggesting something about the life of the artist. He (the artist/Holden-like, Allie-like) is an exile in a kingdom that thrives on artifice. He is a rebel doubly cursed because he feels the thorns of life.

When phonies rule the world, where does the artist go? Holden’s repeated flight is a sad commentary on Salinger’s views with regard to that question. The fact that Salinger walled himself off from public life for most his writing life after his military service is not irrelevant here. Perhaps only Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy have been more guarded.

This idea of the artist’s predicament is powerfully captured in the poem “What’s Wrong with Me” by Chase Twichell. Twichell writes of a sick coyote “ . . . crossing the field, /poisoned, injured, rabid, old, the rest of the pack anxious,/yipping and howling back and forth/across the valley as dusk comes on. What’s wrong with me is that/I find their music beautiful. I dwell on it long after it stops/and in the silence afterward I write down its words.” That is haunting and beautiful. Both the images and sounds recorded, and the fact that a person takes notice and subsequently labors to preserve that pathos, are noteworthy. He puts words to paper to capture the power of the cries of a hurt coyote, of the pack yelping, and of the sun sinking another day.

Holden Caulfield is like the speaker in this poem. He notices what most would bypass, as they go on to the next distraction. Yet he’s caught in a dilemma: how does one fight for the genuine and enduring in a world obsessed with artifice and the temporal?

Holden Caulfield is believable because Salinger was a master of tone (he attended to what the mouth reveals about the heart), and through The Catcher in the Rye, we are blessed with not only a master of narrative tone/voice, but also by one with a narrative exploration of how life cheapens or deepens, depending upon our view of aesthetics.