Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield and American Protest

(The following essay examines Holden's quest for authenticity and meaning in The Catcher in the Rye, drawing attention to the novel's portrayal of rebellion and alienation in postwar American society and its thematic background in American literature.)

On a gray winter afternoon Holden Caulfield, frozen to the quick by more than icy weather, crosses a country road and feels he is disappearing. This image of a bleak moral climate which destroys the soul is not only the keynote of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye but of much that now seems representative of the general tone of American cultural commentary in the aftermath of World War Two, when the novel was conceived.

By 1951 (the year of Catcher's publication) the ambiguities of the cold war, of American global power and influence, were stimulating a large popular audience to find new relevance in well-worn images of disaffection from the modern world. These, which historically had been identified with an aesthetic or intellectual elite, were increasingly being adapted to popular taste as they bore on current social and political concerns.

The impact of David Riesman's classic sociological study, The Lonely Crowd, published one year before Catcher, may have paved the way for a new public concern with the disturbing subject of American character; but the immediate interest Riesman's book aroused and its relatively large sale suggest a readership already sensitized to the kind of anomie which Riesman described and from which Holden Caulfield suffers.

In a sense, Salinger's novel functions at a crossroads, a point on an aesthetic and spiritual journey that he was soon to leave behind. Not unlike the author of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, whom he is all too anxious to mock, Salinger created a work that is rich enough in language, reference, and scene to captivate innocent and sophisticated readers alike. Indeed, it is only through the democratic nature of his audience that Salinger achieves any version of that ideal community of sensibility and response whose essential absence determines Holden's resistance to the world as it is.

Putting aside the many pleasures of authorial wit, narrative skill, and aesthetic energy that are the first fruits of a reading of Catcher, I want to concentrate on a perspective which, thus far, has not received any real critical scrutiny. This is Salinger's ability to infuse a rather formulaic disaffection not merely with the tormented urgency of an individual adolescent voice, but with a resonance that suggests much about the contemporary state of traditional American ideals and aspirations.

Holden's brand of alienation gains in significance when viewed not only laterally, in relation to contemporary styles of resistance (as many critics have already done), but historically, in its relation to and displacement of cultural themes which had preoccupied many earlier American writers. To trace such a pattern is, I hope, to deepen our sensitivity to the role that literature plays in shaping the social and moral options that define identity in an historical culture.

Like earlier social resisters in American literature, Holden holds to his own vision of authenticity in the teeth of a morally degraded society. Unlike his forebears, however, he has little faith in either nature or the power of his dreams to compensate for what his "own environment [cannot] supply." The "perfect exhilaration" that Emerson once felt, crossing the snow puddles of Concord Common at twilight, has been transmuted in Holden's urban, modern consciousness to a puzzled speculation: periodically he "wonders" where the ducks in Central Park go in winter when the lagoon in which they live freezes over.

The contrast of freezing and freedom, a keynote of Salinger's style, reminds us that the spiritual freedom traditionally symbolized by migratory birds is the remotest of possibilities for Holden. From beginning to end of his journey, from school to sanitarium, Holden's voice, alternating between obscenity and delicacy, conveys his rage at the inability of his contemporaries to transcend the corrosive materialism of modern American life. Many critics have berated him for being a rebel without a cause, asking, in Maxwell Geismar's words, "But what does he argue for?" But this inability to move forward and assert a positive goal would seem to be precisely the point of his character.

As a precocious but socially impotent upper-middle-class adolescent who is entirely dependent upon institutions that have failed him, Holden has none of the resources--spiritual, economic, or vocational--that might enable him to become Thoreau's "majority of one." In Thoreau's claim that each of us can become a sovereign unit if we act according to the dictates of conscience, we have a classic American "Antinomian" statement, in which the highest form of individualism, of true self-reliance, is to become, paradoxically, an image of the community's best self.

Walden opens with "Economy," an account of Thoreau's expenditures for building his house, and ends with a vision of spiritual regeneration spreading through the land.

In this conception, to rebuild the self is to regenerate the community. Thoreau's Antinomianism is thus not merely a private or eccentric choice but one that manages to fuse all elements of experience--aesthetic, spiritual, social, national--into a unified endeavor. All need not go to the woods, but all must live as if they had discovered Walden Pond within themselves.

Although Holden, lacking faith in the power of self-regeneration, is no Thoreau, neither is his dilatory rebellion merely the measure of his own eccentricity. It too symbolizes a pervasive social failure. Like Pencey Prep, an elite boarding school full of crooks, materialist America desecrates and debases whatever falls to its care. A society that had once expressed its redemptive hopes in symbols of great moral or millennial power--Winthrop's City on the Hill, Melville's Pequod going down with a "living part of heaven" nailed to its mast--now finds its goals in the platitudes of "adjustment" psychology and the regenerative therapeutic of the sanitarium. What, indeed, is it for?

In Holden's postwar lexicon, America and the world are interchangeable terms. And American global hegemony is given its due in the "Fuck you" expletives which Holden sees as an ineluctable blight spreading through space and time--from the walls of his sister's school, to the tomb of the Egyptian mummies at the Metropolitan Museum, to his own future gravestone. ("If you had a million years ... you couldn't rub out even half the "Fuck you" signs in the world.") Like Scott Fitzgerald, Salinger envisions American society as a kind of gigantic Midas, frozen at the heart and thus unable to mature. For all its wealth, its members cannot generate enough respect for their own humanity to care either for their past or their future.

But while Holden lacks the moral energy to make resistance signify as an individual action, he shares with his classic forebears (Hester Prynne, Ishmael, Jay Gatsby) an unwillingness to recognize the ambiguous truths of his own nature and his own needs.

This lack of self-awareness characteristic of American heroes, this refusal to probe the tangled underbrush where psychological and social claims intertwine, leads to a familiar pattern: a sense of self-versus-world, an awareness so preoccupied with a lost ideal that any real social engagement is evaded. Thus, paradoxically, rebellion only reinforces the status quo.

Holden's evasion is embodied in a strategy familiar to those who recognize that when Huck Finn lights out for "the Territory" he is making a bid for a hopeless hope--freedom from human contingency; and that when Nick Carraway returns to the West he is following the same path to an unrepeatable past that he has consciously rejected in the pattern of Gatsby's life.

Like these dreamers, Holden too is committed to a hopeless vision that makes all the more acute his disgust with the actual. But, in comparison to his forebears, Holden's ideal is a far more diminished thing. It lies in a sunlit childhood Eden, dominated by the image of his dead brother, Allie, who stands for whatever is most authentic in Holden's inner life. Unlike Gatsby, who sacrifices himself to his passion for the past, Holden cannot deceive himself: there is no resurrecting the past, because Allie is dead. This hard fact reduces what was in Gatsby a buoyant, if misguided, hope, to a barren and ineffectual nostalgia. As a mordant comment on American dreamers, it is the last twist of the knife.

Allie's death occurred when Holden was thirteen, the age when puberty begins. On Allie's side of the border it is still childhood, a time when self and world seem, at least in memory, to exist in an enchanted unity. The painful rupture of this sense of self-completion by adolescent self-consciousness and self-doubt is figured in Holden's ritual smashing of the garage window panes at the news of Allie's death.

The fact that Holden breaks his own hand in the act--a kind of punitive self-sacrifice--only underscores its symbolic relation to the greater self-mutilation which the loss of childhood signifies for him. The psychic wilderness into which he falls leaves him in a state of continuous nervous anxiety--of being and belonging nowhere, of acute vulnerability to the aggressions and depredations of others against his now-diminished sense of self. But this anxiety never catalyzes any recognition of the enormity of his needs, or of the inevitable limitations of his character.

By the end of the story Holden does realize that his vision of himself as catcher was only a daydream. He cannot save either himself or those he loves. ("The thing with kids is, ... If they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them.") But this hard-won insight--sustained through his feeling for his little sister Phoebe--is as close as Holden ever comes to establishing any reciprocity with others, or any awareness of the imperatives that operate in their lives.

The notion of the fall into experience as spiritual castration or social betrayal--the dark legacy of romanticism--has had particular importance for those American artists who have viewed American experience from the vantage point of the country's historic ideals. Of course, among those writers we term "classic" there are distinctions to be made.

In "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" Hawthorne allegorized adulthood in terms of the marriage ritual, whereby a man and a woman, brought to moral consciousness through their feeling for one another, sublimate the primitive passions of childhood in the social responsibilities of communal life. But Hawthorne's view of the potential for human happiness in adult life (which becomes his own form of idealism) is something of an exception to the more common, albeit complex, ambivalence of nineteenth-century American writers toward the value of what Wordsworth called "the still sad music of humanity"--a melody which can be heard only by those who relinquished their longing for the intuitive glories of childhood.

Indeed, as the century wears on and industrial society assumes its characteristic modern shape, the American sense of despair at and revulsion from the norms of adult life seems to increase. Writers as diverse in sensibility, experience, and social orientation as Dreiser, Wharton, and Hemingway have created, in Sister Carrie, The House of Mirth, and The Sun Also Rises, works that are remarkably congruent in their protagonists' ultimate response to their world. Hurstwood, disintegrating under the pressure of his confused longings, can find solace only in the rhythmic motion of his rocking chair pulled close to the warmth of the radiator.

Similarly, Lily Bart, overcome by her tortuous social battles, seeks a lost primal warmth by imagining herself cradling a baby in her arms as she relapses into a final narcoticized sleep; and Jake Barnes, made impotent by the war, is unable to imagine a way out of that no-man's-land of lost souls whose wayward pleasures postpone forever the psychosexual dilemmas of adult life. In one form or another, the regression to childhood serves as an "over-determined" response to the limitations of social and individual reality confronting these protagonists.

So Holden, praying to the image of his dead brother, fights to hold onto what he fears most to have lost, struggling through a barren present peopled by Stradlaters and Ackleys--"slobs" secret or pathetically overt; moral ciphers who exploit by arrogance or by whining manipulation. The bathos of American society turns out to be the real illness from which Holden suffers. In the degree to which we respond to his voice, to the bid his apostrophes make for our allegiance, his condition of loneliness and longing becomes a mirror of our own predicament.

What Holden shares with, indeed inherits from, such classic American prototypes as the new man of Emerson's essays, the narrator of Walden, or of "Song of Myself," or of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is both a way of perceiving reality--a "horizon of expectations," in the words of E. H. Gombrich--and a way of speaking that enforces this view on the reader/auditor by discrediting or delimiting all potentially competing voices. Both his overt aggression and his more subtle hostility toward others are regularly redeemed by the vitality of his compassion, intelligence, and wit.

The reader, like one of Holden's loyal though exasperated teachers, is continually persuaded to acknowledge Holden's innate superiority to those around him. All his conflicts seem designed to reinforce this persuasion, to bind the reader closer to him. The startling intimacy of his address, beginning with "If you really want to hear about it," but quickly becoming "You should have been there," "You would have liked it," flatters the reader by implying that he or she shares in Holden's delicacies of feeling and taste.

In effect, the reader fills the space that Allie's death leaves vacant, his silent allegiance the token of an ideal communion in which Holden might find his authenticity confirmed. Indeed, Holden's idiosyncratic friendship with the reader compensates proleptically for the final loss he suffers in freeing his sister from her sacrificial loyalty to him. But such an "ideal communion," demanding nothing less than the absolute acceptance and mutual joy of his lost relations with Phoebe and Allie, leads to a profound distortion of the reciprocal norm implied in the term.

By trying to convert us to his way of seeing and feeling--incorporating us, as it were, into his consciousness while distancing himself from others--Holden unconsciously makes clear that such a bond could never be the basis for the dialogic tensions, sympathies, and re-visions upon which real community depends.

Although Holden's consciousness, like that of all first-person narrators, is the lens through which we view his world, it does not follow that the perspective which the reader shares with the narrator must be as restricted as it is here. Not that Holden is so thoroughly reliable that we cannot see his own confusions and pretensions; there are obvious discrepancies between what he says about himself and the truth of his situation and feelings.

His boarding school precocity masks a vulnerability to social humiliation; his pride in his looks and intelligence does little to assuage his guilty fascination with and fear of female sexuality; and his displaced aggression only underscores his doubts about his own sexual potency.

But these effects are all too obvious. They exist not for the sake of challenging or complicating our empathy with Holden, but of reinforcing it by humanizing him with the same falsities and fears, the same ambiguous mix of "crumby" and decent impulses, that we can accept in ourselves. They make us like him better, believe in his innate decency as we wish to believe in our own, and so encourage us to accept his view of experience as an adequate response to the world. Indeed Holden, "confused, frightened and ... sickened" by the behavior of others, flatters the reader's sense of his own moral acumen; it is all too easy to accept Holden as an exemplar of decency in an indecent age.

Although Holden claims that in telling his tale he has come to "miss" Ackley, Maurice, and the others, his presentation of these figures hardly suggests a deep engagement with the substance of their lives. Like Thoreau's Walden neighbors, whose prodigal habits are introduced only to reinforce the superiority of the narrator's "economy," the characters that Holden meets have little depth apart from their function as specimens of a depressingly antithetical world. If one cares about the three female tourists from Seattle with whom Holden tries to dance, it must be for the sake of one's own humanity, not theirs. They are like flies on the wall of Holden's consciousness--their own histories or motivations need not trouble us.

Thus Holden's plunge into the urban muddle, while it seems to provide images of the social complexity of modern America, turns out to be a curiously homogeneous affair: each class or type merely serves as another reflection of a predetermined mental scheme. In this hall of mirrors the apparent multiplicity of experience turns out to be largely a replication of the same experience, in which those who act out of purpose, conviction, or faith are heartbreakingly rare.

In place of authenticity Holden finds an endless appetite for the glamour of appearance, for the vanity of effect and approval. The story that he writes for Stradlater about the poems on Allie's baseball mitt is rejected by his "unscrupulous" roommate because it doesn't follow the rules of the English composition assignment: "'You don't do one damn thing the way you're supposed to,'" says the infuriated Stradlater. "'Not one damn thing.'"

Holden, of course, resists the rules in order to explore his own nascent artistic integrity, while around him those with more claim to our respect than the obtuse Stradlater betray talent and spirit alike by modeling themselves on one another and conforming their behavior to the regulations of a standardized "performance." Ernie, the talented "colored" piano player who runs his own New York nightclub, is a case in point. He has learned to capture the attention of his customers by performing before a spotlighted mirror.

His face, not his fingers, as Holden points out, is the focus of his style. Once very good, he now parodies himself and packs in the customers who, themselves anxiously performing for one another, applaud Ernie wildly. "I don't even think he knows any more when he's playing right or not," Holden says. Holden's sense of artistry thus serves as a measure of all false values. To the degree that we endorse his authenticity we, who would "puke" along with him, are enabled to share it.

Because there is no other character in the book to provide serious commentary on, or resistance to, Holden's point of view, his experience lacks the kind of dialectical opposition, or reciprocal sympathy, through which he, and we, might develop a more complex sense of the imperatives of American social reality.

As he says about the abortive attempt of Mr. Spencer to focus his attention on his failed history exam: "I felt sorry as hell for him. ... But I just couldn't hang around there any longer, the way we were on opposite sides of the pole. ..." It is this need to polarize and abstract all personal relations that defeats any possibility of normative social connection and engagement. Though Holden complains that people "never give your message to anybody," that "people never notice anything," it is his dominating consciousness, setting himself and the reader in a world apart, that insures his isolation.

Holden's continuous need to defend himself from the encroachments of others generates the verbal disguise he uses to fictionalize all his encounters with adults. The games he plays with Mr. Spencer and Mrs. Morrow, "shooting the bull," telling each what he thinks will most interest and please, enable him to distance himself from the false self his false phrases create as he attempts to protect the true core of his being. As the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott has described it, "the true self" is a core of identity which is always invulnerable to external reality and never communicates with it.

In adolescence, "That which is truly personal and which feels real must be defended at all cost." Winnicott's description of what violation of its integrity means to the true self--"Rape and being eaten by cannibals ... are mere bagatelles" by comparison--brings to mind the emotional horror that Hawthorne displays toward the violation of another's deepest self, which he calls the Unpardonable Sin.

This sense of an integrity to be defended at all cost shapes the Antinomianism, as it does the duality, of Hester Prynne, Huck Finn, and Melville's most notable protagonists. But unlike these forebears, whose need for self-protection is clearly denoted by their double lives, Holden has very little inner or secret freedom in which to function. If society is a prison, then, as in a nightmare tale of Poe, the walls have moved inward, grazing the captive's skin.

Seen in this light, Holden's constant resort to obscenity serves as a shield, a perverse rite of purification that protects him from the meretricious speech of others, which threatens his very existence. Language, for Holden, is a moral matter. In the tradition of Puritan plain-speech, which has had such a marked influence on American prose style, the authenticity of the word derives from, as it points toward, the authenticity of the mind and heart of the speaker.

But unlike the narrators of Walden and "Song of Myself," who give voice to a language fully commensurate with their visionary longings, Holden's imprecations and expletives ultimately serve to define his impotence; they reveal the degree to which he is already contaminated by the manners, institutions, and authorities of his society.

The inadequacy of his vocabulary, upon which he himself remarks ("I have a lousy vocabulary") is a reflection not merely of his adolescent immaturity, but of the more abiding impoverishment from which he as a representative hero suffers--the inability to conceptualize any form of social reciprocity, of a reasonably humane community, in which the "true self" might feel respected and therefore safe. Lacking such faith there is finally nothing that Holden can win the reader to but complicity in disaffection.

It is a literary commonplace that the English novel--from Austen, Dickens, and Conrad to writers of our own day, like Iris Murdoch--has regularly focused its critical energies on the interrelation of social institutions and individual character. In the work of English and European writers generally, society is the ground of human experience. Although many English protagonists enter their stories as orphans, their narratives lead toward a kind of self-recognition or social accommodation to others that represents the evolving meaning of their experience. One grows, develops, changes through interactions with others in a web of social and personal forces which is simply life itself.

But classic American heroes never make such accommodations. Their identities are shaped, not by interaction with others but in resistance to whatever is, in the name of a higher social, ethical, or aesthetic ideal. This, as I have noted, is the ground of their Antinomianism--a public or exemplary heroism, designed to be the only morally respectable position in the narrative. Orphanhood has functioned quite differently for American heroes than for European. More than a starting point from which the hero must evolve a social and moral identity, it represents a liberation from the past that is a totalizing condition of existence--spiritual, psychological, political, and metaphysical. American heroes, seemingly alone, free, and without family or history, test the proposition that a new world might bring a new self and society into being.

Although in each case the hero's or heroine's effort issues in failure, there is no conventional recognition of this experiential truth on the part of the protagonist, no willingness to recalculate his or her relations to society or history. American individualism thus reshapes the archetypal pattern of the orphaned young man (or woman) seeking an adult identity by coming to terms with him or herself in the matrix of family life.

Indeed, the family, as the basis for individual as well as social identity, hardly exists in classic nineteenth-century American literature. Almost invariably American heroes lack the memory of past roots. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is perhaps the proof text for this statement. Hester Prynne, having shed her European past, stands before the Puritan community, her infant in her arms, unwilling to identify the father--a revelation that would establish a new family (in Hester's ideal terms) on these shores.

The fact that Pearl returns to Europe at the story's end, that Dimmesdale tortures himself to death rather than acknowledge his paternity, and that Hester herself remains alone, dreaming of the New World community yet to be, suggests how thoroughly discouraged this most "social" of our classic novelists was about the prospects for authentic family relations in American society.

American heroes like Ishmael and Gatsby are fatherless by choice as well as circumstance. Ishmael will continue to wander as he searches for his lost homeland; Gatsby reaches toward an impossible transcendence whose measure lies precisely in its ineffable difference from the world he knows. Thus Holden's initial dismissal of family history as "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" suggests his affinity with the traditional American rejection of the kind of bildungsroman which David Copperfield, among other Dickens novels, exemplifies.

But while Holden fully shares, on the deepest spiritual level, in the isolation of the traditional American hero, nothing enforces our sense of his impotence more than his ineffectual play at orphanhood in an urban wilderness. Enmeshed as he is in a labyrinth of social roles and family expectations, escape--to a sunny cabin near, but not in the woods--is envisaged in terms of a cliché whose eerie precision illuminates the core of desperation that sustains the image. Salinger's hero is wedded to a pattern of thought and aspiration in which he can no longer seriously believe. He invokes it because it is the only from of self-affirmation his culture affords.

If the old dream of regeneration through separation has become both terrifying and foolish, society remains for Holden what it has always been for American heroes--an anti-community which continues to betray its own high birthright for a mess of commercial pottage. Holden's fear of disappearing--an image which joins the beginning and end of the story--as he crosses from one side of the road or street to the other, aptly expresses his sense of the diminishing ground for authenticity in America. The peculiar sense of a materialism so blanketing that it produces a pervasive deadening of affect becomes the mark of the age.

One thinks of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, whose heroine finds a correlative to the terror of inner emptiness in the social sterility of Madison Avenue glamour--just that world which Holden imagines himself as headed for. Books such as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and Sincerely, Willis Wayde, written to attract a large popular audience, turn these perceptions into the simplified, world-weary clichés of growing up and selling out. But whether cynical or sincere, the protagonists of these novels share with Holden an inability to conceptualize the future as anything but a dead end. "It didn't seem like anything was coming," says Holden, conveying the sense of a world that seems to annihilate the possibility of growth.

Trying to imagine himself a lawyer like his father, Holden wonders if his father knows why he does what he does. Holden knows that lawyers who rake in the cash don't go around saving the innocent. But even if you were such an idealistic fellow, "how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys' lives, or because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court. ..." In a society as replete with verbal falsities as this one, how do you trust your own words, your own thoughts? How do you know when you are telling yourself the truth?

Dickens's tales also show adolescence in an urban commercial society to be a dislocating and frightening process. But from Nicholas Nickleby through Great Expectations there is regularly a kindly, decent figure who provides aid, comfort, and tutelage in time of need. However bad the adult world seems, enough sources of social strength remain to make the protagonist's struggle toward maturity worthwhile. But Holden never finds such an adult. Mr. Spencer, the history teacher who seems to take a fatherly interest in him, is actually most interested in shaming and humiliating him. D. B., the older brother he admires, is as emotionally remote from him as is his father, and Holden takes revenge by reviling him for "selling out" to Hollywood.

His mother, as he repeatedly notes, is too nervous and anxious herself to do more than pay perfunctory attention to her children's needs. His father is a shadowy abstraction--a corporate lawyer, defined by his preoccupations and vexations. We hear from Phoebe that "Daddy's going to kill you," rather than experience the father directly through any memory of Holden's.

Holden's anxiety, then, is of a specifically contemporary kind. Those adults who should serve as moral tutors and nurturers are neither wholly absent nor fully present. Perhaps, as David Riesman puts it in speaking of middle-class American parents, "they are passing on to him their own contagious, highly diffuse anxiety," as they look to others to define values and goals increasingly based upon socially approved ephemera. Yet, however shadowy these adult figures may be, they are as controlling of Holden as is the impersonal, elusive corporate authority which, he knows, ultimately determines the values of his home.

Like the corporate structure itself, these adults are profoundly ambiguous figures whose seeming beneficence it is dangerous to trust. All are effectively epitomized in the teacher Mr. Antolini, whose paternal decency may be entwined with a predator's taste for young boys, and whose advice to Holden turns out to be as puzzling, if not as specious, as his midnight hospitality.

Remarking that Holden is a natural student, Mr. Antolini urges education on him for its efficiency: "After a while, you'll have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that ... aren't becoming to you. You'll begin to know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly." Mr. Antolini's words, like his manners, are glibly seductive, and a trifle coarse. Ideas as garments that one slips on for the fit--a ready-made identity--is a concept not far removed from the kind of stylized performance that Holden detects in the Lunts ("they were too good") and Ernie. It is suited to a society that increasingly emphasizes image and appearance as intrinsically valuable; a society in which the mess and pain of a real struggle with ideas and feelings is considered an unwelcome deviation from the approved norm of "personality."

Because Holden's final return to his family, his "going home," is never dramatized, we are deprived of the experience of a reckoning in which some genuine moral insight, in distinction to Mr. Antolini's sartorial version in the quest for knowledge, might occur. Instead, we are left with the sense of a society that Holden can neither accept nor escape. His encounter has only served to increase his sense of himself as a creature at bay. His anxiety is never allayed.

Because Holden is never allowed to imagine or experience himself in any significant struggle with others (his bloody fistfight with Stradlater emphasizes the futility of any gesture that is open to him), neither he (nor his creator) can conceive of society as a source of growth, or self-knowledge. In place of a dialectical engagement with others, Holden clings to the kind of inner resistance that keeps exiles and isolates alive.

In response to the pressures for "adjustment" which his sanitarium psychiatrists impose, he insists upon the principle that spontaneity and life depend upon "not knowing what you're going to do until you do it." If the cost of this shard of freedom is the continuing anxiety which alienation and disaffection bring--of life in a permanent wilderness, so to speak--so be it. Impoverished it may be, but in Holden's sense of "freedom" one can already see foreshadowed the celebrated road imagery of the Beats.

Holden's struggle for a moral purity that the actual corruptions and compromises of American society, or indeed any society, belie is a familiar one to readers of classic American works. But as I have already suggested, for Holden the terms of that struggle are reversed. Unlike nineteenth-century characters, Holden is not an obvious social outsider or outcast to those he lives among. Well-born and well-favored, his appearance, abilities, and manners make him an insider--he belongs. And yet, as the heir of all the ages, blessed with the material splendors of the Promised Land, Holden feels more victim or prisoner than favored son.

Like the country at large, he expresses his discomfort, his sense of disease, by squandering his resources--physical, emotional, intellectual--without attempting to utilize them for action and change. But the willful futility of his acts should not blind us to the psychic truth which they reveal. Ultimately Holden is performing a kind of self-mutilation against that part of himself which is hostage to the society that has shaped him. Moreover, while previous American heroes like Hester Prynne and Huck Finn evaded social reality at the cost of denying their human need for others and their likeness to them, Holden's resistance concludes on a wistful note of longing for everybody outside the prison of his sanitarium--an ambivalence that aptly fixes the contemporary terms of his predicament.

Holden's self-division is thus reduced to the only form in which his society can bear to consider it--a psychological problem of acceptance and adjustment; yet Salinger's irony results in a curious double focus. The increasing prestige of American psychoanalysis in the 1950s may be attributed to its tendency (at least in the hands of some practitioners) to sever individual issues and conflicts from their connections to more obdurate realities in the social world. There is familiar comfort in the belief that all problems are ultimately individual ones which can, at least potentially, be resolved by force of the individual mind and will. This irony surely lies within the compass of Salinger's story. But its effect is undercut by the polarized perspective that Salinger has imposed on his hero.

As we have seen, the stoic isolation through which Holden continues to protect his authenticity is itself an ethic that devalues confrontation or action and so fixes human possibility in the mold of a hopeless hope. Indeed, it becomes a strategy for containment, as much an evasion of social reality as is the psychiatric imperative to adjust.

There is nothing finally in Holden's diffuse sympathies to offend or dismay the reader, nothing to keep him permanently on edge. By the end of the story the reader has seen his familiar social world questioned, shaken, only to be reconstituted as an inevitable fate. Having been drawn to Holden's side we are finally drawn to his mode of perception and defense. To keep the citadel of the self intact by keeping others at a distance is the kind of social agreement that guarantees that the longed-for community which American experience forever promises will surely forever be withheld.

In discussing the romantic novelist in nineteenth-century European literature, René Girard remarks that the romantic establishes a Manichean division of self and other, refusing to see how "Self is implicated in Other." But since Gerard's concern is as much with the author as with the characters, he goes on to note that this situation is finally attributable to the novelist who stands behind the character and refuses to free either himself or his character from these limitations. In distinction, a "classic" novelist, such as Cervantes, transcends this opposition by distancing himself from his character and so frees himself from the character's perspective. Some form of reconciliation is then possible between protagonist and world.

In Girard's terms, Salinger never frees himself, or therefore the reader, from the grip of Holden's perspective. What happens is just the reverse. We are initiated into a process of seeing in which we are either on the side of integrity and autonomy (Holden) or on the side of the predators and exploiters--from Maurice the pimp to the anonymous psychoanalyst who wants Holden to promise to "apply" himself. A Manichean choice indeed. For the reader, this duality preempts all other modes of perception. The corrosive materialism that blasts Holden as it does his world finally becomes irrelevant to any particular historical moment or reality. Instead, isolation, anxiety, the modern sickness of soul turns out to be the given, irremediable condition of our lives.

Source: Joyce Rowe, "Holden Caulfield and American Protest," in New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 77-95.

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Anonymous said...

I am glad I resisted the temptation to quit reading this essay thinking it's just one more repetition of the many I looked at which, may serve a high school student in order to get by.
It is the most amazing and informative essay I read in my search for a fresh and different point of view starting with mine.This essay taught me so much and certainly made me see the relevance of the historical and the social context at the time the book was written and so much more which unfortunately I do not have the eloquence to express but, understand very well. Thank you .

Academic said...

Dear Visitor,
Thank you so much for your kind words and liberal praise. I am glad that I could be of some help to you in your quest and academic pursuit. Shall be glad to hear from you more often. All the best!

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