You can keep your Holden Caulfield
It’s not polite to speak ill of the dead. Would it be a problem, though, if I spoke ill of some of the dead’s followers?
I read “Catcher in the Rye’’ when I was a teenager, as is required by law for anyone attending a New England prep school. I admit it: The earth didn’t move. I say that as a reflection mostly of myself, not J.D. Salinger. For one thing, at 15 I wasn’t seasoned enough for a proper appreciation of the author’s prodigious writing gifts (that would come when I got to the short stories) nor in the right emotional place for the bell to be struck with reverberant force.
Also, Holden Caulfield seemed a bit of a whiner. Heresy, no? It was only on a second reading, many years later, that it occurred to me that Salinger might have thought so, too. By which I mean it’s worth remembering that Holden is a fictional creation, one who was only mistaken for an omniscient mouthpiece by a generation hooked on solipsism. He gave a lot of people who felt bruised by the world - young people, mostly - the courage of contempt, and for some, that contempt became armor and justification. For one or two, it fed into mental illness and became a weapon. I still remember the disquiet I felt in the early ’80s, when two gunmen - John Hinckley Jr., who tried to kill President Ronald Reagan, and Mark David Chapman, who did kill John Lennon - both said, essentially, “The Catcher in the Rye’’ explains me.
I may have been over-sensitive in the matter, because a good friend in college loved that book like a disease. He wrote earnest, often beautifully composed short stories that we cruelly called “Catcher in the Airport’’ and “Catcher Goes to the Laundromat’’ behind his back. I’m not suggesting he posed a danger to anyone, but Holden was a critical support strut in what seemed a willed fantasy of articulate self-martyrdom. It was as essential to the romance of his unhappiness as the alcohol he poured down his throat.
Easy to judge, and please don’t ask about my own youthful delusions. Still, that is where my distrust of Salinger, or the self-mythologizing that his best-selling novel can enable, began. My roommate was hardly alone at college or in the wider world. Standing back, I could see Holden everywhere. Published in 1951, “Catcher in the Rye’’ was a central strand in the DNA of the 1960s counterculture, its hero a buttoned-down older brother to Abbie Hoffman, Jim Morrison, and all the other conscious rebels who wanted the world and wanted it now and weren’t content to sit and watch Phoebe on the carousel. Because Holden’s scorn for the phonies is so attractive and so well-phrased, it’s easy to see him as a hero instead of a screw-up. Or, at the very least, to see his screwing up as a blow against a rotten superstructure, which perhaps it is if you’re a neglected kid with nowhere else to turn and - extra points - want to tick off mom and dad. But what if Salinger was intending to explore Holden’s alienation rather than celebrate it? What if his skill at describing it from the inside fooled some readers into thinking he endorsed their distance from the world?
That fundamental mistake - relying on the unreliable narrator - is what drew the legions to the author’s door and made him a hermit. The citizens of Cornish, N.H., knew enough to turn young, quivering tourists gently away when they showed up at the general store looking for Him. As if a mere writer could ease their pain. The acolytes wanted validation - proof that the shock of recognition they experienced upon seeing life through Holden’s eyes was real. This is me! And if Holden is me, then J.D. Salinger must be me, or, as the father of Holden, must know me. He didn’t create a monster (although perhaps he thought so some days) but rather thousands of tender readers who felt like monsters and wanted only to meet their maker.
All you have to do to get it, of course, is read Salinger’s other work - really read it, as literature rather than oracle. He specialized in the beautifully selfish men and women (and boys and girls) who paint themselves into corners and call it art. He loved the wounded and self-wounded the way Tennessee Williams did, but with a harder, more wintry understanding. Yet more than a little of the author’s blood flowed into his most famous character, who was the hero of several early stories and an aborted 1946 play in which Salinger envisioned playing the role himself. It may be that writing “Catcher” was a way to figure out the angry young man he no longer was or help consign him to the past.
Ironically, Holden’s influence is everywhere in the present and not always for the best. Would Wes Anderson, say, be a better filmmaker - a broader-minded creator of human types - if every frame of his movies weren’t beholden to Salinger’s rich, narrow world of privileged malcontents? Would the new-fiction shelves in Barnes & Noble be less crowded without the hundreds of family romans à clef rooted in pain and “Franny and Zooey,’’ half of them convinced that pouring one’s demons straight onto the page was all the art you needed?
The fatal flaw in Holden - and I’m not sure how clearly Salinger himself saw it - is his lack of humor about himself. Well, of course he’s humorless: He’s a teenager. But the better “Catcher’’ knock-offs over the years have allowed for some mocking of the misunderstood prep school knight errant. Anderson’s “Rushmore’’ is wise enough to both love and tease Max Fischer, and the unheralded 2002 movie “Igby Goes Down’’ may be the best version of “Catcher in the Rye’’ that isn’t “Catcher in the Rye’’ in its tart awareness of its hero’s airless social world and his penchant for crippling himself before anyone else has a chance to. If “Catcher’’ ever gets made into a film, its director will need courage to show Holden as a messed-up kid rather than an adolescent Christ.
Salinger loved movies, by the way, even if he steadfastly refused to let his own works be pawed by Hollywood. One terrible experience was enough: It’s a little-known fact that his short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut’’ was made into the 1949 Susan Hayward melodrama “My Foolish Heart.’’ Or reverse-engineered: By the time Sam Goldwyn’s tinsmiths were done with it, Salinger’s story had been hammered into a framing device for the wartime romance that takes up the bulk of the film, complete with rosy, self-sacrificing ending. It’s actually a very solid Hayward weepie, but there’s nothing of Salinger in it, and the entire business made him sick, as it should have.
Somewhat bizarrely, I was in the unique position of once witnessing both the author’s love of film - of losing himself in fiction - and his unease with the monster. If you have a J.D. Salinger anecdote, you may as well tell it, and here’s mine: He was a regular at the film society screenings I helped run at the New Hampshire college I attended not far from Cornish in the late 1970s. I had noticed his name on one of the freebie comps we sent out at the beginning of each film series and wondered out loud to the projectionist, a local guy, if Salinger ever showed up.
“Jerry? He comes to every movie.’’ At the next screening the projectionist pointed out a man whose ticket I’d punched countless times, a lean man in late middle age with a hunter’s flap-cap that made him look like the Granite State cuss he was. Mindful of the legend, I kept the knowledge to myself. In retrospect, I dearly wish we’d scheduled “My Foolish Heart,’’ if only to see whether he’d show.
One day, though, a devil of immaturity made me tell a “Catcher’’-loving friend that The Great Man was standing a mere 20 feet away from him in the theater lobby, and - boom - he was over there, begging to be heard, to be seen. Salinger was out of that lobby in seconds; I don’t think I’ve ever seen an old man run so fast. He didn’t return for at least a month, either, and I felt terrible, although I didn’t say so. Just punched his ticket and let the man back into the movies.
Months later, after Lennon was killed and Reagan was shot, I wanted to ask him what he felt but I didn’t dare. Anyway, he had only invented Holden. What other people did with him was their business, wasn’t it? Does an artist’s responsibility stop with the creation of the art or does he own its place in the world, too? I have no idea. I just know that Salinger looked at what he’d done, turned, and ran.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.