Monday, May 18, 2009

The Catcher in the Rye: The Legacy of Holden Caulfield

The Catcher in the Rye is, of course, more than a novel. A lightning rod for a new sensibility, a wisdom book for postwar students, a behavior manual for the age of impulse, it has had a life apart from the literary world and cultural significance and staying power beyond its literary value. Inferior in quality to the greatest consciousness--shaping works of American modernism-among them, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Invisible Man-it nevertheless has the power to distill states of mind, spark identification, and live beyond its covers.

Like certain songs or movie characters, it has become a part of the shared experience of a vast number of people in the second half of the twentieth century. People know the book who haven't read it with any care; others-like nineteenth-century people who had heard about Mr. Pickwick or Anna Karenina-have heard the news of Holden Caulfield just by being alive. There are websites devoted to the novel; people live by it and, although we live in an un-Arnoldian age, it is probably one of our last remaining literary touchstones-youth and resentment and joy and angst, in book rather than CD, TV, or net form.

It came out in 1951, not exactly an annus mirabilis for American literature, but not such a bad year, either. From Here to Eternity was also published and became a bestseller. The gap between the two books is the gap between an older world of naturalism-with its careful chronicling of injustices and hard luck and hard living--and an entirely new rendering of the American situation: the distance between Jones's war in the Pacific and Salinger's peace and prosperity is hardly the crucial point; Catcher has a language, texture, and view of what counts that places it firmly in America's future; From Here to Eternity belongs with the classics of the past.

1951 was not a notable year for cultural change in America, either. Rock 'n roll, Brando's motorcycle in The Wild One, Dean's red jacket in Rebel Without a Cause-the spring blossoms of the coming age of antinomianism-were nowhere in sight. What was plentifully available? Endless anti-communist screeds, anxieties about conformity, books about Social Problems, music that was sentimental and kitschy or part of the wit and heart of old Tin Pan Alley (the obnoxious kid Stradlater in Catcher whistles themes from "Song of India" and "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue"), liberal arts students who wanted jobs and not ideologies.

Salinger's book was the first embraceable book to appear after the war: the first book with an idiom and an attitude of its own, something that made young people newly aware of themselves. The novels that were still coming out about the war didn't quite do the job for these new readers. They needed their own book, one that spoke to the younger brothers who were just kids at the time of the war. They also needed a book that didn't employ the locutions of the Depression, the rhetoric of the left and right, or the language of the war years, whether the staunchly patriotic slogans of the majority or the disaffected idiom of the isolationists among the intellectuals.

At first blush, Salinger's novel, a younger brother's account of himself, seems like a reinvention of a familiar story in earlier twentieth-century literature: like Winesburg, Ohio or Look Homeward, Angel or even Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, it's about a lonely young boy who thinks there is something wrong with the world, something essentially dead and phony and disgusting about the arrangement of things.

But once linked with these books, Catcher detaches itself, for the most part because it isn't a story about development. Holden Caulfield has no unfolding destiny, no mission, not even the dramatic moments of Nick or his avatars in battle or Eugene Gant overcoming his mother's influence. Holder is a drifter whose life story is a muddle, a series of pathetic, comic, poignant incidents that are altogether unlike the destiny-building moments of the earlier books. Salinger turns against the "David Copperfield crap" and most other patterns as well.

The book is anti-literary in a new way: its pages are filled with babbling rather than talk that builds to a climax; impressions that are overtaken by afterthoughts, comic contradictions, half-recognitions, and canceled insights. While sharing the basic subject of Hemingway and Anderson-lonely youth-- Salinger invents a mode of his own: a managed incoherence, an attractive breakdown of logic that appeals to the confused adolescent in all of us.

Sweeping denunciations are followed by abject apologies-only to be followed by other ridiculous pronouncements. Holden the muttering self fires off Holdenism after Holdenism. Try one of these: "I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot." Or, "I hate the movies like poison, but I get a bang imitating them." Or, "A horse is at least human, for God's sake." Or, "The show wasn't as bad as some I've seen. It was on the crappy side, though." Or, "Listen. What's the routine on joining a monastery?"

Holden's idiom is the novel's glory, the property that has appealed to audiences for fifty years. A blend of explosive denunciation and heart-on-sleeve sentiment, it maintains a high tension for a little over two hundred pages. Since Salinger employs only the thinnest of plots-a linking of loosely connected incidents in Holden's downward journey-the rambling, ranting, and rhapsodizing are the main events.

The idiom takes over as Holden's speech becomes the central conflict. How will he react next? We lurch from apercu to apercu, epigram to epigram-all of them drawing on carefully chosen contrasts: the boy's rendering of his world employs popular culture and classic literature, upper-middle-class taste and a thorough knowledge of urban tackiness, refinement and grossness, tender solicitude and harsh condemnation.

The book is charged and energetic to the end because it never quite settles into a consistent point of view: as exasperating as this may be for readers who want character logic and clear motivation, the scattered remarks and volatility of the prose have taken hold. Its unreasoned judgments have also dug deep into our consciousness and connected with the unexplainable part of our lives. Can we account for every aspect of our own irritation, repulsion, contempt? Are there clearly drawn correlatives for Holden's disgust, anger, and disillusionment?

Do we have any evidence that the people he mocks are quite as pathetic as he would have it? Ackley with his pimples and bragging about sex, Stradlater with his dapper appearance and swagger, Sally Hayes with her hardedged practicality and her little ice-skating skirt, the out-of-towners Marty and Laverne at the Lavender Lounge with their grammar errors and their gawking at celebrities? Are they enough to warrant what is magnified into what we see as Holden's contemptu mundi? If you have followed the crazy reasoning, listened to Holden's standards-- sincerity, kindness, dignity-you will follow such judgments. These people are pathetic, either phonies or flops.

Holden's discontents and diatribes are infectious because we all have our irascibility and fastidiousness, and Salinger has managed to play on us by summoning up the perfect, grating details. Like Browning or Dickens, he has an extensive inventory of annoyances and human weaknesses, stupid locutions and exasperating habits. The book is a treasury of the ludicrous, and its absurdities remain fresh a half century later.

Take Pencey's headmaster with his forced jokes and his toadying to rich parents; or the man at Radio City who says of the Rockettes, "that's precision"; or Sally Hayes conspicuously embracing a gray-flanneled acquaintance as if they were "old buddyroos." Recall some Dickens characters-despite Holden's self-conscious impatience with David Copperfield-and you will be in the same literary territory: Peckniff with his "moral throat," Fagin's "my dear," Pumblechook with his hectoring. Like Dickens, Salinger has a masterful command of pretensions.

At the Wicker Bar Holden observes the singer, "Old Janine": "And now we like to geeve you our impression of Vooly Voo Fransay. Eet ess the story of a leetle Fransh girl who comes to a beeg ceety, just like New York, and falls in love wees a fettle boy from Brookleen." He captures the manner of Carl Luce, a blase intellectual, with dead-on accuracy: "He never said hello or anything when he met you. The first thing he said when he sat down was that he could only stay a couple of minutes."

There's no place quite like Catcher for savoring the cant and swill of contemporary life: "Newsreels. Christ almighty. There's always a dumb horse race, and some dame breaking a bottle over a ship, and some chimpanzee with pants on riding a goddamn bicycle."

But once you have had your fill of Holden denouncing anything and everything, you naturally wonder what it all amounts to. Does Salinger deliver any real insight, any recognition? Is it all clever schtick or carefully managed nastiness? Are the mots a kind of superior talk radio? Pure spleen hasn't much staying power; negativism, as Cyril Connolly once remarked, dates quickly. But Catcher mixes its cynicism and irascibility with a rich brew of sentiment and idealism, a child-like faith that life contains more than pretensions and phoniness.

In some ways it is more a wisdom book than a novel, a collection of pronouncements about living well and discovering useable truths. After thundering at the world, it offers compact packages of insight. Holden, the comic instructor incapable of running his own life, proposes exempla for his listeners: he's the half-cracked advisor who gets our attention by the strange slant of his doctrines. The most affecting doctrine of course is that of the Catcher in the Rye: this teaching-- which twists Robert Burns's line from "meet" to "catch"-is a typical Holdenism; half-informed, but totally emphatic, it produces meaning in the midst of confusion. It takes a highly recognized poem, mixes childish naivete with the poetry and mangles the original sense.

The result is a curious restatement of the New Testament exhortation to be thy brother's keeper: your mission in life is to catch little children before they fall off the cliff. No sooner do you see the odd simplicity and innocence of the doctrine's packaging than you recognize its powerful connection with other such statements in world literature. Salinger, by redesigning a sentiment about love and mercy and the innocence of children, takes a modest but quite definite place in the romantic movement; his imagery-either in the figure of the individual child (Phoebe Caulfield or the little boy who sings a snatch from "Comin' Through the Rye") or the vision of crowds of children endangered-is strongly reminiscent of Blake's language in Songs of Innocence and Experience.

His moment of pure joy at first reminds us of Blakean joy. Looked at from a Blakean point of view, it's the all-but-incoherent utterance of the innocent, for example the voice in "Infant Joy": "I happy am / Joy is my name.- /Sweet joy befall thee!" But the more specific insight of Catcher is a lesson out of Wordsworth.

The doctrine of Catcher is presented in Salinger's characteristic spatterdash, free-- associational
way. In a scene with Phoebe, he enunciates his position, but does so by raking through the past and stumbling inadvertently on truth: the emotional truth of the Catcher "comes" to Holden-as it has to romantic poets, particularly to the Wordsworth of "Resolution and Independence"-after he has reviewed the spectacle of himself, rejected that self and the world that made it, and by chance discovered truth embodied in the quotidian, in the unproclaimed and unproclaiming world of everdayness; that truth is distilled in the actions of the nuns collecting for their order at the station, in the schoolteacher who mercifully covers the body of a young suicide, and in the sacred actions of Holden's dead brother, Allie.

Like Wordsworth, Salinger favors the didactic colloquy as a prelude to emotional awakening. A teacher-without a schoolroom, of course-prepares the pupil for the recognition. Along the same lines, the leech gatherer in Wordsworth, an old man who endures despite poverty and the harshness of the environment, has a few direct, simple words-"apt admonishment" for a narrator who is depressed and caught in a web of self-absorption; he has his message, his example, his acceptance of life. Salinger's Phoebe Caulfield has her corresponding childish insights to offer an older brother caught in a similar emotional crisis.

In league with Wordsworth, Salinger prefers a symbolic action or a dramatic scene to reasoning or mere words. Holden listening to Phoebe's childish jabbering and the narrator of "Resolution and Independence" listening to the old man's sparse advice: each character is more influenced by the personal situation than by the particular words. And each work is carried by spectacle and scene rather than by specific doctrine. Talk is important, but reasoned explanation will not yield insight.

Catcher's last dramatic scene shows Phoebe riding the carrousel in Central Park, reaching for the gold ring. The depiction includes Holden's reaction, a joyous response, something that cannot be accounted for logically or through an examination of motive: "I felt so happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so happy, if you want to know the truth." In its way this is our recent literature's most memorable equivalent of

Wordsworth's great awakening scenes: the discovery of joy and heightened understanding and the capacity for close identification with others who are experiencing instinctual pleasure or fulfillment or satisfactory endurance. "By our spirits are we deified," Wordsworth put it.
The awakening is like John Stuart Mill's famous recognition scene in his Autobiography: Mill's own depression lifted when he discovered the inner sense of Wordsworth's poetry. "What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought colored by feeling, under the excitement of beauty."

Hard as it is to think of human feeling as a news item at the turn of the millennium-after nearly two hundred years of writers, poets, singers, and attitudinizers prying out the meaning of emotions-it seems new to us when Salinger is the investigator. Holden watching his sister has given contemporary American literature a moment like that of "Resolution and Independence" and that of

Mill emerging from his despondency: the melancholy observer awakens to the joy of life by observing another's deep involvement in some form of release or reclamation.
Mill calls the process of his awakening through poetry "the culture of the feelings." In reading Wordsworth's poems, he recollects, "I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings." When Holden Caulfield was so happy he felt like "bawling," he wanted to pass on the elation-"God, I wish you could've been there." Be it said that the source of newfound joy-the culture of the feelings-is a child on a carrousel, not a series of poems.

Renewal in the twentieth century is the raw experience of being in the midst of life, colliding with joy and not wanting to account for why or wherefore; Mill's highly analytic account of renewal through the cultivation of feelings assumes a world where the individual moves easily among books and abstract ideas and ordinary experiences.

The mystery of emotional awakening is Salinger's main obsession in the book; his fear is that the discovery he has made-the connection between the innocent wise child and joyous renewal-will in some way be mocked or cheapened or otherwise devalued. Or generalized about or analyzed. He also fears himself and his all-too-- human inclination to traduce his own vision. Afraid to publish, afraid of the sentiment that he himself has dispersed, he has become an elderly Holden, AWOL from the responsibility to give an account of himself; in Salinger's case he has bitterly resisted the responsibilities of authorship as we generally recognize it, including the obligation to be heard periodically.

Catcher-since its publication-has been its author's holy book, never to be defiled by stage, screen, or other profane translations. As any reader of Ian Hamilton's book on Salinger will easily recognize, the protectiveness of this author for his property is something that goes well beyond our ordinary understanding of author's rights. And the book itself provides its own self-absorbed defense against cheapness and meanness; hardly a sentence passes without the narrator's making sure that he is not falling into the ways of the world.

Holden wants to immunize himself against corny rhetoric by employing every kind of hard-boiled phrase and cynical dismissal that the publishers of 1951 will permit. The scenes of pure joy and transcendence come in the main near the end of a book that has taken devastating aim at the cheap emotionalism, histrionics, sappy effects, warm and fuzzy recognition scenes in movies, books, and life. The author has his own defensive tactics-whatever it takes to keep the sacred texts from being defiled.

Salinger's idea of joy and renewal should be seen against the backdrop of Hollywood schlock; it's the awkward, hand-designed, and naive sentiment that stands out against the formulaic and corny. Askew and spontaneous, the story line is far from the calculated mass product that Holden remembers from the movies. Contrast it, for example, with his favorite love-to-hate movie, a travesty of renewal about an Englishman who suffers from amnesia after the war.
Holden tells us that the character Alec staggers around on a cane until he meets a "homey babe" who wants to rejuvenate him, share her love of Dickens-as well as get help in her floundering publishing business, help badly needed since her cracked-up surgeon brother has been spending all the profits.

The complications-involving Alec's ducal status and his other girlfriend-are hilariously related by Holden, whose own complications have none of the factitious neatness of this sort of plot. "Anyway it ends up with Alec and the homey babe getting married. ... All I can say is don't see it if you don't want to puke all over yourself." Hollywood in this case is the culprit, but elsewhere human feeling is mangled by the cant of prep school teachers, New York sophisticates, phony intellectuals, doting upper-middleclass parents, even earlier writers.

Dickens's David Copperfield crap is the best hint of all about Salinger's ambition to achieve his own breakthrough. True to the great project of romanticism, Catcher throws off the meretricious past, purifies its spirit with a new diction, tone, and objects of attention.

The decorum of earlier literature disappears, along with the dignity and seriousness and measured speech of modernist heroes like Jake Barnes or Jay Gatsby. In the carrousel scene, the rain pours down and mixes with the strains of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Oh Marie" and the spectacle of Holden in his hunting hat. No Frederic Henry here. The ludic, manic mode can't and won't account for a hero, refuses to unpack clear causes or offer careful delineations.

The literary tradition is something to get a kick out of-the way Holden does from Hardy's Eustachia Vye-but not something to talk about much, or follow in much detail.
When Salinger taught writing at Columbia, he was disdainful of the whole notion of classroom analysis of works. Just read them. We murder to dissect. We even murder to account for or scrutinize.

This contempt for disciplined analysis and careful tracing of literary filaments from the past does not mean the book doesn't champion other kinds of personal discipline. The central doctrine of the book-that each of us has a Catcher in the Rye lodged within-implies a strict code for living. In its ramshackle way, Catcher is a conduct book for the age of anxiety and conformity.

No section of the book is without its precepts, prohibitions, and practical tips for cant-free living. It is, in this sense, one of the first manuals of cool, a how-to guide for those who would detach themselves from the all-American postwar pursuit of prosperity and bliss. Holden the drop-out and outsider speaks like some crazed, half-literate Castiglione as he discourses on everything from clothing and bearing to the appropriate responses of a cool person in any situation.

The following precepts are crucial:
-Ignore the messages of mass media. ("The goddamn movies. They can ruin you.")
-Be "casual as hell."
-Avoid any air of superiority or trace of competitiveness.
-Value digressions more highly than logical arguments.
-Never use the word "grand."
-Scorn routine sociability.
-Observe the margins of life: the remarks of children, the conduct of nuns; ignore the main acts. (The guy who plays the kettle drums at Radio City Music Hall is more important than the "Christmas thing" with "O Come All Ye Faithful.")

After fifty years these teachings remain a central element of our culture. Young people and their fearful elders know that coolness is the only way. Formal discourse, sequential thinking, reverence for the dignified and the heroic: these acts closed by the 1960s.

The voice of Holden played a part in shutting them down. Its tone-- directed against prestige and knowingness-is as cutting today as it was in 1951: "I could see them all sitting around in some bar with their goddamn checkered vests, criticizing shows and books and women in those tired, snobby voices." Cancel the checkered vests and you're right at home at the millennium.

But for all its durability, does Catcher continue to make sense to the mature mind? Is it infantile and simplistic, reductive and negative, expressing the attitude of a kid who is soon to get the therapy he needs? One can only say that the scorn for conventions and the search for joy are a part of the ongoing romantic project that started in the eighteenth century.

Exasperating, irrational, and dangerous as these pursuits have sometimes proven, they show no signs of coming to an end. Salinger's ardor and disdain have a bracing quality of their own, inferior to that of the great romantic artists but nevertheless still important at a time when we need to resist our own age of reason, its monoliths and abstract ideas of human progress. With its horror of groupthink of all kinds-be it remembered that, like George Orwell, the Salinger of Catcher has nothing good to say about politics, power blocks, commercial modernity, or any orthodoxy-the book is free of the worst tendencies of the late 1940s.

Like Orwell, too, Salinger has profound respect for the decencies, pleasures, and truths that can be found anywhere. But unlike Orwell, Salinger is an anti-enlightenment weaver of fantasies and denouncer of hard-headed thinking. If truth be told, his Blakean celebration of joy and wonder foreshadowed the wooliness of the beatniks and hippies and would become flabby and sententious even by the time of the Glass family stories of the late 1950s.

While Franny and Zooey's complaints about civilization are preachy and humorlessly tiresome, though, Holden's negativity remains wonderfully fresh in its inconsistency. He remains a bearer of a permanent truth: that you can't fake an affectional life; that you must live through absurdity, indignity, and pain in order to get a small return of happiness.

Credits: David Castronovo. New England Review. Middlebury: Spring 2001. Vol. 22, Iss. 2; pg. 180

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