Sunday, May 24, 2009

Literary Criticism: Reviewers, Critics, and The Catcher in the Rye

Editor’s Note: The following article by Carol and Richard Ohmann kicked up a literary storm of sorts over J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and provoked prominent writers and critics like James E. Miller Jr. to respond vehemently. In this oft quoted masterpiece Carol and Richard Ohmann offer a detailed Marxist analysis of how capitalist social and economic strategies influence the development of Holden's character. You have already read James E. Miller’s rejoinder in my previous post; now, see what actually prompted him to react.

On the day The Catcher in the Rye was published, on Monday, July 16, 1951, the New York Times reviewed it; a review in the Sunday Times had appeared the day before, and a rush of other reviews followed. Through the later fifties and on into the sixties, Catcher engaged academic critics, and it still does, although the novel generates criticism at a slower rate today than it used to. By 1963 Warren French supposed that critics had written more on Catcher than on any other contemporary novel, and in 1965 James E. Miller, Jr., claimed, reasonably enough, that Salinger had stirred more interest among the public and critics alike than any writer since Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

By 1961, Catcher had sold 1,500,000 copies; by 1965, 5,000,000; last year the total of its sales stood at more than 9,000,000. The Catcher in the Rye arrived to stay and is older now than most of its audience when they read it for the first time. That quarter century is time enough to allow us to generalize not only about the book's reception in 1951 but about the consensus of critical opinion that developed after-wards. We are concerned, in brief, with how Catcher became a classic: this is a case study of capitalist criticism. And in it, we shall have in mind the distinction Raymond Williams makes in Culture and Society between the lives books lead in the minds of readers and the lives their readers (and writers) live in particular historical times.


To return to July 16, 1951: on that Monday, the front page of the Times carried eleven news stories. The largest headline, with the text beneath breaking into two parts, concerned the war in Korea, then a year old: one part told that peace talks between United Nations negotiators and Communists had resumed in Kaesong (they would, of course, be unsuccessful), and the other reported with extensive quotation a speech Secretary of State Dean Acheson made in New York to book and magazine publishers on the meaning of the Korean conflict; the State Department had released the speech "at the request of a number of those" who were present to hear it. An account of the fighting itself with maps and communiqués from the field and a list of casualties appeared on page two. The front-page news was not, in other words, of the combat and its immediate consequences but of verbal maneuvering in the conflict between Communism and the Western world and of the ideological interpretation our leading spokesman in foreign affairs wished to give to events in Korea.

Apart from stories on a flood in Kansas City, the weather in New York (hot, dry, and hard on the water supply), and a request for funding for new schools in the City, all the other articles on the front page bore on the struggle between East and West, of which events in Korea were simply for the moment the most dramatic and costly example: in Teheran, 10,000 "Iranian Reds" rioted to protest the arrival of Averill Harriman, who had come as Truman's special assistant to talk with the Shah's government about the Iranian- British oil dispute; Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, Chief of Naval Operations, left for a week in Europe, which would include discussion in Spain about possibilities of "joint military cooperation"; the United States asked for the recall from Washington of two Hungarian diplomats in retaliation for the expulsion of two American officials from Budapest; a Republican congressman protested that his party's opposition to Truman's proposal for continued price, wage, and credit controls was not "sabotaging" those controls but aimed at stopping "socialistic power grabs" on the part of the A dministration.

The front page of the Times on July 16, 1951, serves to outline, quickly enough, the situation of the world into which The Catcher in the Rye made such a successful and relatively well-publicized entrance. The main action of the world, the chief events of its days were occurring within a framework of struggle between two systems of life, two different ways of organizing human beings socially, politically, economically. The opposition between East and West, between socialist and capitalist, was determining what happened in Kaesong, Budapest, Madrid, Teheran, Washington, New York. Name-calling the Administration, Republicans threw out the term "socialist," and the bid for millions to build schools in the five boroughs of New York would finally have to dovetail with allocations of taxes for defense.

The review of The Catcher in the Rye in the back pages of the Times made no mention of any of this. The kind of reality reported on the front page belonged to one world; the new novel was about to be assimilated into another, into the world of culture, which was split from politics and society. And this separation repeated itself in other reviews: typically, they did not mention the framework of world history contemporary with the novel; they did not try to relate Catcher to that framework even to the extent of claiming that there was only a partial relationship or complaining, however simplistically, that there was none. Our concern from here on will be to try to sketch what reviewers and what academic critics after them did see in the novel and what they might have seen in it. We are interested in the conceptual frameworks, the alternatives to history, they used to respond to and interpret Catcher as they passed it on to its millions of lay readers.

Before turning to the world of culture, though, it seems useful to turn back one last time to the news of July 16, 1951, for even as it was being reported it was, of course, already being interpreted. The Secretary of State's speech in New York and the lead editorial were especially rich in interpretive intent. Acheson placed the Korean War in the perspective of an ongoing conflict between the United States and Russia, and urged us to prevail in that conflict: "Korea's significance is not the final crusade. It is not finally making valid the idea of collective security. It is important perhaps for the inverse reason that in Korea we prevented the invalidation of collective security."

Even if peace was made in Korea, we should not relax, because further dangers resided in the awakening of the vast populations of Asia, populations which are beginning to feel that they should have and should exercise in the world an influence which is proportionate to their numbers and worthy of their cultures. We must manage our difficulties so prudently that we have strength and initiative and power left to help shape and guide these emerging forces so that they will not turn out to be forces which rend and destroy.

What Acheson implied to be the eventual happy ending of our present and future efforts is obvious and familiar: we would not only retain our present advantages economically and politically but augment them. Nations emerging in Asia would do so in ways compatible with rather than antagonistic to our hegemony, hence to our own well-being. The fundamental value to which Acheson appealed in his speech, the goal and the sanction of all that he urges, is comprehended in the phrase "national interests." Our nationalism was not, in the language of his argument, aggressive but defensive. "A blow has been struck at us in Korea." Another might be struck in a year elsewhere if we slackened in our defense effort; Asian nations would rend and destroy us if we did not guide them otherwise.

The lead editorial supported Acheson's policies and yet at the same time shifted the mode of justifying them: “We would be less than humane if we did not urge and support any course of action that can spare the loss of life. No honest person wanted a war in Korea and all right-minded persons want to see it ended. Nevertheless, we are not willing to sacrifice honor and morality to our will to peace. The United Nations was right in the first place to resist aggression, and that rightness has not been changed. Obviously, the aggression that will have to be resisted now is political rather than military. Our defenses need to be as strong in one field as in the other”.

The fundamental appeal here was to a timeless, extra national morality transcending particular interests. Sparing lives and living peacefully are good-everyone right-minded and honest and honorable believes that-but, regrettably and inexorably, the defense of freedom must come first. The United Nations was fighting for a self-determining, united Korea independent of foreign intrusion, and would go on fighting if that end was not achieved at the conference table in Kaesong.

In appealing to "national interests," Acheson did offer a justification, a definition of right, that is congruent with the historical moment; "national interests" fittingly named, though it certainly did not spell out, a clear-sighted interpretation of politico-economic realities in 1951: the United States, having determined the policy of the United Nations, was fighting in Korea to protect and eventually to extend America's post-World War II domination of the world's economic sys-tem. The editorial writer obscured the historical moment and mystified the Korean War: as an honorable nation, we were fighting north and south of the fortieth parallel to preserve morality.

The transformation worked on historical fact between the front page and the editorial parallels, we think, the transformation reviewers and critics worked on The Catcher in the Rye. The novel does not, of course, mention the conflict between East and West. It does mirror a competitive, acquisitive society, where those who have, keep and press for more-the same society that put half a million troops on the field in Korea and sent Harriman to Teheran and Sherman to Madrid. Catcher, to anticipate our argument at this point, is precisely revealing of social relationships in midcentury America, and motives that sustained them, and rationalizations that masked them. In the hands of reviewers and critics, though, its precision and its protest were blurred and muted, masked not quite white but grayed by a steady application of interpretive terms that tended to abstract and merely universalize its characters and its action, dimming the pattern of their own historical time. As Acheson spoke of interests and the editorial writer of morality, Salinger wrote about power and wealth and reviewers and critics about good and evil and the problems of growing up.

From the Times directly or from other daily papers and from radio and television broadcasts purveying the same news, reviewers turned to The Catcher in the Rye. They were fairly consistent in their estimates of the novel; either they praised it or, finding some fault with it, they allowed that it was nonetheless brilliant or a tour de force or at the very least lively. What concerns us here, though, is not how the reviewers rated it but the categories under which they apprehended it. They viewed the novel as a novel, commenting especially on its most striking formal feature, Salinger's choice of a seventeen-year-old personal narrator and his matching of syntax and idiom to that choice.

They were also concerned to label Catcher generically; they saw it as satire or comedy or tragicomedy, or at their most casual they called it funny or sad or both at once. And in a rudimentary way at least they positioned the novel in the history of fiction; it reminded them of Twain's work and Lardner's and Hemingway's. In other words, neither surprisingly nor inappropriately, the reviewers described Catcher as a literary work in itself and placed it vis-a-vis other works similar in genre and style. What they were concerned to do mostly, though, was to relate Catcher to life, and upon that relationship they hinged their estimates of its quality far more than they did on its stylistic or generic qualities. They assumed that a novel's most important function is mimetic and that insofar as it succeeds as representation, it succeeds as fiction. Theoretically, this standard might have integrated the two worlds which we have spoken of as separate. But in fact it did not because of the way the reviewers defined, and circumscribed, "life."

They were, first of all, concerned to describe Holden Caulfield as a person, and, doing that, they emphasized his youth; usually they went on to diagnose what ails him and, sometimes, to prescribe a cure and to guess what would happen to him next, beyond the point where the novel itself ends. In the Times, Nash K. Burger wrote: "Holden's mercurial changes of mood, his stubborn refusal to admit his own sensitiveness and emotions, his cheerful disregard of what is sometimes known as reality are typically and heartbreakingly adolescent." Phrases similar to "typically and heartbreakingly adolescent" recur in other reviews: "[Salinger] charts the miseries and ecstasies of an adolescent rebel" (Time); "[Holden is a] bright, terrible, and possibly normal sixteen-year-old" (Harvey Breit, Atlantic); "Holden is not a normal boy. He is hyper-sensitive and hyper-imaginative" (S. N. Behrman, New Yorker); "the reader wearies of this kind of explicitness, repetition and adolescence, exactly as one would weary of Holden himself " (Anne L. Goodman, New Republic). The kind of typing implicit in these quotations is laid out plain in Ernest Jones' review: "[Catcher] is a mirror. It reflects something not at all rich and strange but what every sensitive sixteen-year-old since Rousseau has felt, and of course what each one of us is certain he has felt.... its insights ... are not really insights; since they are so general, The Catcher in the Rye becomes more and more a case history of all of us . . ." (Nation). The reviewers differed on certain points: Holden is normal or he is not, but even those who say he is not or possibly not, have a norm in mind. They type Holden according to a timeless developmental standard. They do not fully agree on how to define adolescence, or on how far Holden fits the category (is he hypersensitive? is he especially bright?), but they do agree that there is a norm or model and that Holden more or less matches it.

We would exaggerate if we said the reviewers had no awareness at all of Holden Caulfield's time and place. They did address themselves to Salinger's representation of his hero's society, although much less emphatically than they set about describing the hero himself, but here again, they showed a common disposition to typify or to categorize and to do so in remarkably similar ways. Harvey Breit called Catcher "a critique of the contemporary grown-up world" (Atlantic). Harrison Smith referred to the "complexity of modern life" and "the spectacle of perversity and evil," which bewilder and shock Holden as they do so many youths (Saturday Review).' Both these reviewers alluded at least to the time of the novel's time. But Breit did not enlarge upon his point save to say that Holden is not a good observer, that we do not see the world through his eyes, only himself; the phrases Smith employed are very far from specific, and this disposition to abstraction is even more pronounced in some other reviews.

In S. N. Behrman's words, "[Holden] is driven crazy by 'phoniness,' a heading under which he loosely gathers not only insincerity but snobbery, injustice, callousness to the tears in things, and a lot more"; he is faced in the novel with "the tremendously complicated and often depraved facts of life" (New Yorker). Burger, in the quotation above, attributed Holden's difficulties to "a world that is out of joint." In Virgilia Peterson's opinion, Holden "sees the mixtures, the inextricably mingled good and bad, as it is, but the very knowledge of reality is what almost breaks his heart" (Herald Tribune Book Review).14 To say that modern life is complex is to say very little indeed about it, and to speak of "the tears in things" and "a world that is out of joint" and "reality" is to move Catcher altogether out of its contemporary setting, to see Holden's difficulties as everywhere and always the same. Even the reviews that make no explicit mention of modernity or of Holden's "world" imply by typing him as an adolescent that a sixteen-year-old's problems have been, are, and will remain the same.


In the March 1957 issue of The Nation, David L. Stevenson re-marked, "It is a curiosity of our age that J. D. Salinger ... is rarely acknowledged by the official guardians of our literary virtue in the quarterlies."16 That was accurate, though not perhaps so curious if, as we suppose to be the case, our official guardians then, as now work primarily in our prestigious institutions of higher learning and work over a canonical list of English and American and other Western writers passed on down by those institutions. Although The Catcher in the Rye continued to be very much read through the fifties, there was a lag between its date of publication and the appearance of very much professional or academic criticism about the novel. Two years after Stevenson's comment, however, The Nation carried an article by George Steiner titled "The Salinger Industry." "[Stevenson,]" Steiner wrote, "can now rest assured. The heavy guns are in action along the entire critical front." What were they booming?

In Steiner's opinion, they were not only noisy but off target. He was concerned both to note the critical energy being expended on Salinger and to correct its aim. At the very time Catcher was being assumed into our literary canon, he was suggesting what bounds criticism should keep within and what conclusions it ought to be reaching. Salinger was a "gifted and entertaining writer with one excellent short novel and a number of memorable stories to his credit."

But criticism, Steiner complained, was busy comparing Salinger to great writers and speaking of his work in "complex" and "sublime" terms. Why so much activity, more than Salinger's merit (in Steiner's opinion) deserved, and why such exaggeration and pretension? Steiner gave two reasons, and to his mind they exposed what was wrong with criticism written in contemporary America: first, critics had grafted New Critical jargon onto Germanic scholarship and could no longer speak plainly; second, our academic institutions turned out too many critics, too many assistant and associate professors in need of promotions and fellowships and constrained to publish to get them. "Along comes a small though clearly interesting fish like Salinger and out go the whaling fleets. The academic critic can do his piece with few footnotes, it will be accepted by critical reviews or little magazines, and it is another tally on the sheet of his career.

"Steiner's piece is in certain ways inaccurate. It tells what one might have expected to happen if one were predicting the nature of Salinger criticism in the later fifties from an exclusive and judgmental point of view of American academic institutions (too many critics on their way up the ladder, "too many critical journals, too many seminars, too many summer schools and fellowships for critics"); but it is skewed in its description of Salinger criticism as it actually did happen in the fifties. We have paused on Steiner because he did remark the arrival of the "Salinger industry" and because the prejudices he brings into the play are commonly leveled against academics. We want to distinguish our quarrel with the critics from Steiner's. As we see them, they were generously intentioned and more sincere, less dominated by New Criticism or any other "school" and more subtle, than they appeared to be in Steiner's account of a "vast machine in constant need of new raw material." If, as we go on to argue, they underestimated or overlooked or misread Salinger's rendering of contemporary American life, they do not appear to us to have done so because they were time-serving drudges fattening their bibliographies for promotion.

It is true that critics exercised their professional training in writing on Salinger, as they might be expected to do. They spoke of the novel's style; an article in American Speech, for example, scrutinized Holden's vocabulary and grammar, considering how far they conformed to teen-age vernacular in the 1950s. They clustered its images in significant patterns, interpreted its symbols, explained its literary allusions, brought to light principles of narrative repetition and variation that govern its structure, spoke of its time scheme, saw Holden in California as a novelist of sorts himself, looking back on his experience and shaping it to try to understand it. They paid, unsurprisingly, more precise and lengthier attention to the novel as a work of art than its reviewers had in 1951. And they cared much more than the reviewers about positioning Catcher with reference to other literary works, finding generic and literarily historical lodgings for it. In a particularly influential article in 1956, Arthur Heiserman and James E. Miller, Jr., identified Catcher as belonging to "an ancient and honorable narrative tradition" in Western literature, "the tradition of the Quest." Other critics reiterated the idea of the quest, or they spoke of Holden's trip to New York as a journey to the underworld or through the waste land, or they called his series of adventures picaresque. And yet, academics though they were, the critics as a whole were less concerned, really, with typing the novel and less employed, even, with explication as an activity in itself than they were with elucidating the novel's rendering of human experience and evaluating its moral attitudes. In this they were close to the original concerns of the reviewers. And they give the impression less of elaborately trained professionals eager to display their learning and methodological expertise (while hungering after advancement) than they do of serious common readers approaching Catcher for what it reveals of life and offers in the way of wisdom.

We shall lower here a very plain but, we hope, serviceable grid on a number of critics and ask how they saw Catcher answering two questions: what went wrong with Holden, propelling him from Pencey Prep to New York to a psychiatrist's couch in California, and what, if anything, could have been, or could be, done about it?

One group of critics located the causes of Holden's predicament altogether or mainly in himself, in his soul or in his psyche. Flunking out of his third prep school, Holden is responding to inner rather than outer pressures; "he is a victim not so much of society as of his own spiritual illness" which forbids his discarding any of his experiences and condemns him to carry the burden of indiscriminate remembrance. Or else he is saintly in his sensitivity, suffering and yet blessed in his inability to withhold either empathy or compassion. Or else Holden is immature or spoiled, an adolescent who is too absolute in his judgments, too intolerant of human failings or an "upper-class New York City boy" who is a "snob." For his spiritual illness, there can be no cure unless he grows into spiritual perfection, finding God and living by His injunction to love. His immaturity calls for growth, for maturing into an acceptance of things as they are, and so does his snobbery. These critics differed as to whether or not Holden is left arrested in his difficulties or moved toward or even through redemption or initiation or acceptance or adjustment. But in any case, these views of his predicament all imply that the answer to it, whether that answer is realized in the action of the novel or not, lies in some inward movement of the soul or psyche, a kind of resource that might be available to anyone any time and just as timelessly necessary to saints and sinners as bewildered young men.

More often than they held Holden responsible for his fate, for his breakdown and the events that led him to it, critics saw it derived more emphatically from external causes; they were disposed to blame the world instead of or along with the hero. For some, Holden collides with an unchanging set of antagonists which they speak of in religious or philosophical terms. Holden confronts "evil," an "immoral world," a "mutable and deceitful world"; his is, as everyman's always is, the existential condition. Like Hamlet, he "stand[s] aghast before a corrupt world." He is "sickened by the material values and the inhumanity of the world." In other readings, his antagonists are more particularly named American and modern. Holden is seen facing, and breaking on, forces characteristic of American life and, more particularly, twentieth-century American life. The people he meets are "innocently imperceptive and emotionally dead"; they impose standards of conformity, as they did on Thoreau and Henry Adams. Or, Holden's society, worse than Thoreau's, and Adams' (and Huck Finn's), is complex, urbanized, dehumanized and dehumanizing; his is the condition of "contemporary alienation."Holden is encircled by "phoniness, indifference and vulgarity"; "as a 'neo-picaresque,' [Catcher] shows itself to be concerned far less with the education or initiation of an adolescent than with a dramatic exposure of the manner in which ideals are denied access to our lives and the modes which mendacity assumes in our urban culture." Contemporary America is afflicted with "neurosis and fatigue." Society is "sick"; "our national experience hurtles us along routes more menacing than the Mississippi." The critic who cast his net widest, aiming at both the enduring and the timely explanation, drew in the most reasons for Holden's fate, for the fact that his retrospective narration issues from a California institution for the mentally ill: "Holden could not face a world of age, death, sickness, ugliness, sex and perversion, poverty, custom, and cant."

Most of these terms, we need hardly emphasize, conceptualize Holden's world in a general way. Many have a moral frame of reference (evil, deceit, corruption, inhumanity, mendacity); many have a psychological or emotional frame of reference (the individual feels the pressure to conform, or society is tired and disturbed). In either case, they tend away from precise description of the society Salinger renders in Catcher.

When Catcher's society did draw pointed comments from critics, they were apt to be negative. Maxwell Geismar, for example, admired Salinger's creation of Pencey Prep, with "all the petty horrors, the banalities, the final mediocrity of the typical American prep school," but faulted his portrayal of Holden's family and class as vague and empty. Holden, he argued, comes to us from "both a social and a psychological void"; Salinger makes no reference to the "real nature and dynamics" of the hero's urban environment. And Ihab Hassan conceded that Catcher is not a "sociological" novel: "No doubt social realities are repressed in the work of Salinger-note how gingerly he handles his Jews."There is an assumption here that a novel that is satisfyingly realistic mirrors society sweepingly and fully, follows Mr. Caulfield into his corporate office and introduces the maid who lives in the room behind Phoebe's. And that assumption, we think, worked to obscure how much Salinger did represent of the contemporary world in Catcher, and how far he under-stood what he represented.

And when Holden's predicament was given external cause, at least in part, what could be done about it? What resolution if any did these critics see the novel reaching or at least implying? For certainly a difference in diagnosis would seem to entail a difference in prescription, especially when critics did invoke historical time and place to account for Holden's misadventures. They did not, however, differ very much from the critics above who addressed themselves primarily to the state of Holden's soul or psyche. Holden was searching, as they saw it, for truth or for wisdom or for personal integrity. And beyond reaching under-standing and achieving his own identity, he needed to communicate and to love or to find an object for the love he was able to feel at least as the novel ended if not before. In Catcher Salinger showed that "the resources of the personality are sufficient for self-recovery and discovery."Or they saw Catcher posing Holden's predicament without offering or even implying its solution. More rarely, they touched on the question of how society itself might change along with or apart from any change Holden might manage within his own psychic territory. America had lost its own innocence and, like Holden himself, needed to "face [the] problems of growing up." Although facing them was more likely to lead to "despair" than to "hope."

Of this common intellectual strategy, we can take James E. Miller's criticism as typical. In 1965, almost ten years after his article with Heiserman appeared, Miller wrote again about Catcher, this time in the Minnesota pamphlet series on American writers, where his responsibility was in part to voice the critical consensus that had developed. He did so in language that is by now familiar. Holden is on a threefold quest: for "the innocence of childhood," for "an ideal but un-human love," and for "identity." His is "the modern predicament." He is up against "the world as it is," and "the fundamental physicality of the human predicament," which is "a phenomenon of all human relationships, all human situa-tions, by their very nature of being human." In spite of the word "mod-ern," and some references to the atom bomb ("contemporary horrors"), Miller's epitomizing language takes the novel quite out of real history and makes it an eternal story of "death and rebirth." This critical transformation, evidently, was what it took in the academic American fifties and sixties to claim for a literary work the status of a classic.

We fix on Miller, not because he was an inept critic, but because, on the contrary, he was one of the best. In 1965, had we written the Min-nesota pamphlet, we surely would have written it in the same ideological key-and less well than Miller. But through another decade of history the book has come to lead a different kind of life in our minds, and it is to our present understanding that we now turn.


For us, as for almost all readers, Holden's sensitivity is the heart of the book, that which animates the story and makes it compelling. Events are laden with affect for Holden. He cannot speak of an experience for long in a neutral way, apart from judgment and feeling. And of course those judgments and feelings are largely negative. Not so entirely negative as Phoebe says-"You don't like anything that's happening"-but this novel is first the story of a young man so displeased with himself and with much of the world around him that his strongest impulse is to leave, break loose, move on. From his pain follows rejection and retreat.

But what exactly is it that puts Holden out of sorts with his life? What does he reject? The critics answer, as we have seen, phrases that universalize: an immoral world, the inhumanity of the world, the adult world, the predicament of modern life, the human condition, the facts of life, evil. As we see it, the leap is too quick and too long. Holden lives in a time and place, and these provide the material against which his particular adolescent sensibility reacts.

Holden has many ways of condemning, and an ample lexicon to render his judgments. Some people are bastards, others jerks. The way they act makes you want to puke. What they do and say can be-in Holden's favorite adjectives-depressing, corny, dopey, crumby, screwed-up, boring, phony. "Phony" is probably Holden's most frequent term of abuse, definitely his strongest and most ethically weighted. For that reason his application of the word is a good index to what he finds most intolerable in his life. And Holden is quite consistent in what he calls phony.

Holden says he left Elkton Hills, one of the schools he attended before Pencey, because he was "surrounded by phonies," in particular Mr. Haas the headmaster, "the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life." Haas earned this label in the following way:

On Sundays [he] went around shaking hands with everybody's parents when they drove up to school. 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 half an hour, with somebody else's parents. I can't stand that stuff”.

In a word, snobbery. Haas toadies to those who comfortably wear the uniform of their class-some register of high bourgeois-and snubs those with padded shoulders and unfashionable shoes who have come lately to their money, or not at all. His gestures to the latter are inauthentic, and such contempt can wound. But only because class does exist: Haas is not just personally mean; his phoniness and his power to hurt depend on an established class system that institutionalizes slight and injury.

Just a bit later Holden tells of another phony, an old Pencey grad named Ossenburger who has "made a pot of dough" through a chain of "undertaking parlors all over the country that you could get members of your family buried for about five bucks apiece." Holden has little respect for Ossenburger's enterprise: "He probably just shoves them in a sack and dumps them in the river." Nonetheless, Ossenburger is an eminence at Pencey, to which he has given "a pile of dough," and where Holden's dormitory is named after him. On a football weekend Ossenburger comes to the school in "this big goddam Cadillac," receives an obligatory cheer at the game, and gives a speech in chapel "that lasted about ten hours." It is a pious affair, making obliquely the Calvinist connection between wealth and virtue. Ossenburger extols prayer:

“he started telling us how he was never ashamed, when he was in some kind of trouble or something, to get right down on his knees and pray to God. ... He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs”.

Holden demystifies in the telling, better than if he had said, "this man claims legitimacy for his money, his Cadillac, his business ethics, his eminence and class privilege, by enlisting religion on his side." Again, phoniness is rooted in the economic and social arrangements of capitalism, and in their concealment.

But a second motif in these scenes also deserves comment. The clues to phoniness lie in outward forms of conduct. Haas' phony smile follows an external convention, but accords poorly with emotional reality. His handshakes imply equality, but thinly hide the reverse of equality. Ossenburger talks within a framework of conventions: he is in chapel; he gives a sermon; he speaks of prayer. Holden's revulsion attends, in part, on ceremony itself: on prescribed forms that shape the flow of our words and movements. A smile, a handshake, a chapel assembly with boys seated in rows, a sermon, a prayer: none of these is a spontaneous expression of the self; all impose limits and bear conventional meaning. Holden resents these constraints, and delights in release from them. Hence:

The only good part of [Ossenburger's] speech was right in the middle of it. He was telling us all about what a swell guy he was, what a hot-shot and all, then all of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me, Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart. It was a very crude thing to do, in chapel and all, but it was also quite amusing. Old Marsalla”.

We won't offer a disquisition on old Marsalla's fart, but these things may be noted: a fart is the antithesis of ceremony (in this society, anyhow). It asserts the body, assaults manners and convention. Here, it shatters Ossenburger's hypocrisy and boastfulness. But it also strikes at the social idea behind a "speech"it self. It mocks the meaning of "sitting in the row." It is a "crude thing to do, in chapel and all." In brief, it is commendable ("quite amusing") because it challenges, not only Ossenburger's false ideology, but also the very existence of social forms.

These twin themes run through the book. When a situation or act seems phony to Holden, it evidences bad class relationships, or public ritual, or both. The first theme is foregrounded when Holden stigmatizes the word "grand," or the phrase "marvelous to see you"; the second when he notes the hollow formality of "glad to've met you." The first theme unites the Wicker Bar at the Seton Hotel, ambitious lawyers, the fash-ionable opinion that the Lunts are "angels," Spencer's deference to headmaster Thurmer, the night club set's public affection for pseudoculture (cute French songs), the "dirty little goddam cliques" at boys' schools (where "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"), Andover, "Ivy League voices," men in "their goddam checkered vests, criticizing shows and books and women in those tired, snobby voices." The second theme is foregrounded in Sally Hayes' letter, inviting Holden to help trim the Christmas tree; in the black piano player, Ernie, and his "very phony, humble" bow to his philistine audience; in that audience's applause; in actors' conventional representation of people; in ministers' sermons ("they all have these Holy Joe voices.... I don't see why the hell they can't talk in their natural voice"); in Stradlater's hello to Ackley; in Holden's handshake with Ackley; in phony parties and smoking for show and conversations about art.

Holden rounds on mores and conventions that are a badge of class. He also revolts against convention itself. We would remark here that although these two feelings often blend, they have quite different origins. Society is imaginable without privilege, snobbery, unequal wealth. To banish all convention would be to end society itself. More of this later.

For now, we want to underline the first of the two conclusions we have reached by looking at what Holden calls phony. The novel's critique of class distinction may be found, not just between the lines of Holden's account, but in some of his most explict comment on what's awry in his world. We must quote at some length from his digression on suitcases. When Holden meets the two nuns in the sandwich bar, their suitcases prompt him to say:

It isn't important, I know, but I hate it when somebody has cheap suitcases. It sounds terrible to say it, but I can even get to hate somebody, just looking at them, if they have cheap suitcases with them. Something happened once. For a while when I was at Elkton Hills, I roomed with this boy, Dick Slagle, that had these very inexpensive suitcases. He used to keep them under the bed, instead of on the rack, so that nobody'd see them standing next to mine. It depressed holy hell out of me, and I kept wanting to throw mine out or something, or even trade with him. Mine came from Mark Cross, and they were genuine cowhide and all that crap, and I guess they cost quite a pretty penny. But it was a funny thing. Here's what happened. What I did, I finally put my suitcases under my bed, instead of on the rack, so that old Slagle wouldn't get a goddam inferiority complex about it. But here's what he did. The day after I put mine under my bed, he took them out and put them back on the rack. The reason he did it, it took me a while to find out, was because he wanted people to think my bags were his. He really did. He was a very funny guy, that way. He was always saying snotty things about them, my suitcases, for instance. He kept saying they were too new and bourgeois. That was his favorite goddam word. He read it somewhere or heard it somewhere. Everything I had was bourgeois as hell. Even my fountain pen was bourgeois. He borrowed it off me all the time, but it was bourgeois anyway. We only roomed together about two months. Then we both asked to be moved. And the funny thing was, I sort of missed him after we moved, because he had a helluva good sense of humor and we had a lot of fun sometimes. I wouldn't be surprised if he missed me, too. At first he only used to be kidding when he called my stuff bourgeois, and I didn't give a damn-it was sort of funny, in fact. Then, after a while, you could tell he wasn't kidding any more. The thing is, it's really hard to be roommates with people if your suit-cases are much better than theirs-if yours are really good ones and theirs aren't. You think if they're intelligent and all, the other per-son, and have a good sense of humor, that they don't give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do. They really do. It's one of the reasons why I roomed with a stupid bastard like Stradlater. At least his suitcases were as good as mine.

The source of Holden's feeling could hardly be clearer, or related with more social precision. He belongs by birthright at Elkton Hills; Dick Slagle presumably does not. Their situation-living together-calls for an equality of human beings. (School itself, the American institution that most supports our myth of equal opportunity, carries the same hope.) Likewise, Holden's desires point him toward a world in which human qualities like intelligence and a sense of humor would be the ground of relatedness, rather than Mark Cross luggage and the money that stands behind it.

Both boys are deformed by what they bring with them to their room from the social order outside. Holden is depressed, and wishes to find the right gesture (throw the suitcases away, trade with Slagle) to deny their socially imposed difference. He is hurt by Slagle's resentment, when it becomes more than kidding, and he finally gives up on the relationship. Slagle, naturally, suffers more. Shame over his suitcases is one thing. But worse are the contradictory feelings: he hates the class injustice, and strives through the word "bourgeois" ("He read it some-where") for the ideas that would combat it; yet at the same time he longs to be on the right side of the barrier, to benefit from class antagonism by having others think he owns the Mark Cross suitcases. Clearly Holden understands all this; we can only suppose that Salinger does too.

It was the nuns' suitcases, and their straw baskets, that reminded Holden of Dick Slagle, and the nuns also stir in him reflections about money and the expression of social feeling. He tries to imagine women from his own class "collecting dough for poor people in a beat-up old straw basket," but it's "hard to picture." His aunt is "pretty charitable," but always dressed in a way that emphasizes her condescension. "I couldn't picture her doing anything for charity if she had to wear black clothes and no lipstick. .. ." As for Sally Hayes' mother: "Jesus Christ. The only way she could go around with a basket collecting dough would be if everybody kissed her ass for her when they made a contribution." If they didn't, she'd get bored and "go someplace swanky for lunch. That's what I liked about those nuns. You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It made me so damn sad .. ." At the root of Holden's sadness are lives confined by poverty, the loss of human connectedness, the power of feelings distorted by class to overcome natural bonds of affinity and friendship. In the end, one chooses to room with "a stupid bastard like Stradlater," whose suitcases are as good as one's own.

So we hold that the text of this novel, and the experience of it, warrant a formulation of what wounds Holden quite a lot more precise than the one given it by phrases like "the complexity of modern life," "the neurosis and fatigue of the world," or "our collective civilized fate." These epitomes are in fact strongly ideological. They displace the political emotion that is an important part of Salinger's novel, finding causes for it that are presumed to be universal.

Likewise, the majority opinion on what Holden yearns for-ideal love, innocence, truth, wisdom, personal integrity, etc. Let's examine one such idea in detail. James Miller writes, "Perhaps in its profoundest sense Holden's quest is a quest for identity, a search for the self...." Holden tries various disguises, but "the self he is led to discover is Holden's and none other. And that self he discovers is a human self and an involved self that cannot, finally, break with what Hawthorne once called the 'magnetic chain of humanity.'. . ." Miller writes of the self as if it were innate, genetically coded, yet somehow repressed. When Holden does rediscover it, it is "human" and "involved."

These rather vague characterizations lack social content. Yet we doubt that Miller or anyone else believes the identity of a person to lie beyond social influence, not to say definition. Any society provides identities for its members to step into; Holden's is no exception. We can hardly consider his quest for identity apart, for instance, from the fact that his father is a corporation lawyer ("Those boys really haul it in") on the edge of the ruling class, who has tried, however fruitlessly, to open for Holden the way to a similar identity by apprenticing him in a series of private schools. For Holden, such an identity is imaginatively real, and coercive. He gives it a reasonably concrete description when Sally Hayes refuses his invitation to go live by a brook in Vermont. She says there will be time for such pleasures later, after college. Holden:

“No, there wouldn't be. There wouldn't be oodles of places to go at all. It'd be entirely different .... We'd have to go downstairs in elevators with suitcases and stuff. We'd have to phone up every-body and tell 'em good-by and send 'em postcards from hotels and all. And I'd be working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers, and playing bridge all the time, and going to the movies and seeing a lot of stupid shorts and coming attractions and newsreels”.

Holden understands well enough that such an identity is incompatible with the spontaneous feeling and relatedness he wishes for.

But what vision can he entertain of some alternate self? Here imagination darkens. Holden has no idea of changing society, and within the present one he can see forward only to the bourgeois identity that waits for him. So he fantasizes another identity which fulfills desire by escaping society almost entirely. He would hitchhike out West to "where it was pretty and sunny and where nobody'd know me," get a (working class) job at a filling station, and build a cabin at the edge of the woods. He would "pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes," thereby ending the necessity of having "goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody."If he married, it would be to a beautiful deaf-mute, and if they had children, "we'd hide them somewhere ... and teach them how to read and write by ourselves". No corporate structure and no Madison Avenue; but also no social production, no school, and no talk. In short, an identity for Holden that erases human history.

Here is the main equivocation of the book, and it seems to be both Holden's and Salinger's. We argued a while back that the force of Holden's severest judgment is divided. "Phony" stigmatizes both the manners and culture of a dominant bourgeoisie-class society-and ceremonies and institutions themselves-any society. As long as we listen to the critical themes of the novel, the equivocation doesn't matter much: after all, the only society around is bourgeois society. But when we listen to those hints in the novel of something better, of alternative futures, of reconstruction, it makes a great deal of difference. Given Salinger's perception of what's wrong, there are three possible responses: do the best you can with this society; work for a better one; flee society altogether. Only the second answers to the critical feeling that dominates the book, but Salinger omits precisely that response when he shows Holden turning from that which his heart rejects to that which has value, commands allegiance, and invites living into the future without despair. So, when Holden imagines an adult self he can think only of the Madison Avenue executive or the deaf-mute, this society or no society.

And what does he like in the present? Phoebe accuses him of not liking anything, but he likes much: his dead brother Allie, for inscribing poems on his baseball mitt; Jane Gallagher, for keeping her kings in the back row at checkers. Both violate convention, and show a disdain for winning. Richard Kinsella, who broke the rules of the Oral Expression class, and digressed upon his uncle's brace when he should have been telling about his father's farm. The nuns with their straw baskets, poor but outside competitive society. James Castle, who refused even the minimal compromise with society that would have saved his life. The Museum of Natural History, where the Eskimos remain as changeless as figures on a Grecian urn, and so defy historical process. For Holden, images of the valuable are generally images of people withdrawn from convention-people who are private, whimsical, losers, saints, dead. Holden's imagination cannot join the social and the desirable. At the beginning and again at the end of the novel he has the illusion of disappearing, losing his identity altogether-both times when he is crossing that most social of artifacts, a street.

So long as the choice is between this society and no society, Holden's imagination has no place to go. He wants love and a relatedness among equals. These do not thrive in the instituions that surround him, but they cannot exist at all without institutions, which shape human feeling and give life social form. When Phoebe retrieves Holden from nothingness and despair she draws him, inevitably, toward institutions: the family, school, the Christmas play, the zoo in the park, the carrousel where "they always play the same songs." In short, toward the same society he has fled, and toward some of its innocent social forms, this time magically redeemed by love.

Holden returns to society, the only one available. It is unchanged; he has changed somewhat, in the direction of acceptance. To go the rest of the way back, he requires the help of another institution, and a psychoanalyst. Society has classified him as neurotic-a fitting response, apparently, to his having wanted from it a more hospitable human climate than it could offer. He will change more. Society will not. But that's all right, in the end: the very act of telling his story has overlaid it with nostalgia, and he misses everybody he has told about, "Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It's funny. Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody”. In a word, Art forms the needed bridge between the desirable and the actual, provides the mediation by which social experience, rendered through much of the story as oppressive, can be embraced.

The Catcher in the Rye is among other things a serious critical mimesis of bourgeois life in the Eastern United States, ca. 1950-of snobbery, privilege, class injury, culture as badge of superiority, sexual exploitation, education subordinated to status, warped social feeling, competitiveness, stunted human possibility, the list could go on. Salinger is astute in imaging these hurtful things, though not in explaining them. Connections exist between Holden's ordeal and the events reported on the front page of the Times, and we think that those connections are necessary to complete Salinger's understanding of social reality. Iran and Korea and the hard-pressed New York school system express the hegemony of Holden's class, as do Broadway and Pencey and Stradlater. Salinger's novel makes no reference to the economic and military scope of that class's power, but the manners and institutions he renders so meticulously are those of people who take their power for granted, and expect their young to step into it.

We say, further, that these themes are not just discernible to the eye of an obsessed political reader, as one might strain to give Catcher an ecological or existential or Seventh Day Adventist reading. They are central to the book's meaning and to the impact it has on us and other readers. Its power is located, all agree, in Holden's sensitivity, keen observation, and moral urgency, and in the language with which he conveys these in relating his story. For all his perceptiveness, though, he is an adolescent with limited understanding of what he perceives. Readers (adults, at least) understand more, and in this gap a poignancy grows. Most readers share or are won to Holden's values-equality, spontaneity, brotherhood-but sense that these values cannot be realized within extant social forms. The novel draws readers into a powerful longing for what-could-be, and at the same time interposes what-is, as an unchanging and immovable reality.

It does so in a way that mirrors a contradiction of bourgeois society: advanced capitalism has made it imaginable that there could be enough "suitcases" for everyone, as well as spontaneity and brotherhood, and it feeds these desires at the same time that it prevents their fulfillment. Only a few can hope for suitcases and spontaneity, at the expense of the many, and enjoyment of them depends on shutting out awareness of the many. Furthermore, even the few are somehow blocked from enjoyment by the antagonistic striving required to secure one's suitcases, by the snotty human relationships of the Wicker Bar and Madison Avenue, by what Philip Slater calls "our invidious dreams of personal glory." In short, the esthetic force of the novel is quite precisely located in its rendering a contradiction of a particular society, as expressed through an adolescent sensibility that feels, though it cannot comprehend, this contradiction. Short of comprehension, both Holden and Salinger are driven to a false equation-to reject this society is to reject society itself-and a false choice-accept this society or defect from society altogether.

It is here that the novel most invites criticism, informed by history and politics. But the critics have instead, with few exceptions, followed Salinger's own lead and deepened the confusion of the novel with the help of mystifications like "the adult world," "the human condition," and so on. Pressing for such formulations, they have left history and the novel behind. They have failed both to understand its very large achievement-for we consider it a marvelous book-and to identify the shortcomings of its awareness and its art. And in this way they have certified it as a timeless classic. We have been speaking of "readers," "critics," and "criticism." This is itself, needless to say, a mystification. Most readers and almost all critics belong to the professional and managerial strata between the high bourgeoisie and the working class. Almost all the critics have been college teachers, and at a time when their (our) lives were affected dramatically by the course of American capitalism. Specifically, in the fifties and the sixties, these conditions wrought a significant change in the position of academic intellectuals: (1) America preserved, with great success at first, the world hegemony of capitalism through a policy of "contain-ment" (Korea, etc.). 2) This achievement, along with rapid technical development and corporate expansion, allowed unprecedented use of the world's markets and resources (e.g., Iranian oil) for the enrichment of the American economy. (3) American higher education responds very directly to the needs of the economy: both the new imperialism and new technical development (television, computers, military hardware, etc.) resulted in a rapidly increasing demand for college trained people and for research. Hence the enormous expansion of the university system. (4) This happened just when new teachers had to be recruited from the small cohort of depression babies, while the student population began to swell as the much larger cohort born after the war reached school and college. In short, there was a sharp increase in demand for college teachers, and a corresponding improvement in our absolute and relative position in the society. Not great wealth, to be sure, but modest prosperity, quick advancement, more prestige, confidence and a new self-esteem.

Here we must leave the argument without perfect closure. It would be vulgar determinism to hold that from these economic conditions followed a "bourgeoisification" of the academic mind, and from that a capitalist misreading of The Catcher in the Rye. For one thing, this picture ignores McCarthyism, the pressure toward liberal conformity in the university, and the sweet, secret inducements proffered to intellectuals by the CIA through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Encounter, Partisan Review, and all the instruments of cooptation.

But common sense and a belief in real connections between people's ideas and their material lives are enough, we think, to make it seem natural for a critical establishment so located in American capitalism to interpret and judge literary works in a way harmonious with the continuance of capitalism.

We need hardly say that the world is a different place in 1976 than it was in 1951 or 1971. Even from the American academy, capitalism now seems a less inevitable and friendly part of the landscape. Academic criticism, and indeed literary study, hold a less favored position than they did even five years ago, and all indications point to a further de-cline. As thousands of people in our field join the unemployed or ill-employed, it will be surprising if most teachers of English maintain a separation of culture from society, and keep on writing the kind of criticism that mediated Catcher's acceptance as a classic.

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Valea said...

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Valea said...

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Academic said...

Hi Kristi,

Thanks for your compliments. It has been a pleasure to have you here. See you more often. All the best!

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