(Late last year, writer Mike Norris and artist David Richardson imagined the members of J. D. Salinger’s fictional Glass family, a follow-up to their earlier exploration of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Here’s their take on Salinger’s most famous novel. — Levi)
If you were like me, you were a big fan of J.D. Salinger in high school. A big fan. Not only read The Catcher in the Rye, but followed that with Nine Stories, and the Glass family chronicles. Talked about the stories with your friends, contemplated the idiosyncrasies of Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass. Went around with these characters running through your head, perhaps not quite knowing what to make of them.
Then, you moved on. I headed off to college, and I put Salinger behind me. I advanced to the Beats and other writers, and except when reading about Salinger’s death in 2010, I didn’t think much about this famously reclusive writer.
But recently I started re-reading his slim oeuvre.
Salinger’s early life parallels that of Holden Caulfield. He grew up in Manhattan, and there he attended the McBurney School. He showed promise in drama, wrote for the school newspaper, and, like Holden, managed the fencing team. Nevertheless, McBurney expelled Salinger because of his failing grades. He then went to Valley Forge Military Academy near Philadelphia, from which he graduated in 1936. It was at Valley Forge that he started writing stories.
After graduation from military school, Salinger bounced around, attending New York University for a year and working for a meat packing company in Vienna, Austria (at the urging of his father) until the eve of Austria’s annexation by Hitler in 1938. On his return to the States, he briefly attended Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, and then took a writing class at Columbia. His writing teacher was Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine. Burnett recognized Salinger’s talent, and accepted one of his stories, “The Young Folks”, for publication in the spring, 1940 issue of the magazine.
With one story successfully published, Salinger began submitting to The New Yorker. The magazine rejected most of these efforts, but did accept “Slight Rebellion off Madison” for publication in late 1941. However, due to the outbreak of World War II, and the content of the story, it did not appear in The New Yorker until 1946.
“Slight Rebellion off Madison” marks the first appearance of Holden Caulfield. It contains an early version of the Sally Hayes episode which appears in Catcher in the Rye.
During the war, and immediately after, Salinger continued to explore the Holden Caulfield character and the Caulfield family. In 1942, an unpublished story titled “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” features Vincent Caulfield, Holden’s oldest brother, who becomes D.B. in Catcher in the Rye. It also reveals the Caulfield’s’ mother to be Mary Moriarty, an actress, and mentions Phoebe and Holden. The story occurs after the death of Kenneth, who becomes Allie in Catcher.
In 1944, Salinger published “The Last Day of the Last Furlough” in the Saturday Evening Post. This story features Vincent Caulfield (D.B.) again. Vincent is staying with his friend Babe Gladwaller on the eve of shipping out for World War II, and Holden Caulfield is mentioned as being missing in action. Gladwaller’s relationship with his sister Matty in this story foreshadows that of Holden’s with Phoebe in the novel to come.
1945 saw the appearance, in Colliers magazine, of the story “I’m Crazy”. This piece is essentially the first iteration of the opening chapter of Catcher in the Rye along with other scenes that will appear in the novel. As “I’m Crazy” opens, Holden is on top of a hill looking down on the gymnasium where the big basketball game is going on. He has been thrown out of “Penty”, and is trying to work up a feeling of goodbye before he leaves. Then he visits Old Mr. Spencer, who has the grippe. Finally, he takes the train home and stops in his sister Pheobe’s room. In this story he also has a baby sister, Viola. The story ends with him wondering about the ducks in Central Park just before he falls asleep.
In “An Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” (pulled from publication by the author, 1945) we get another look at Vincent (D.B), Kenneth (Allie) and Holden. In this story, Kenneth succumbs to a heart condition after swimming in a rough ocean. Vincent carries him home, where he is met on the porch by young Holden, who has just returned from camp. Kenneth dies that night, his heart having given out (in Catcher he had died of leukemia). This story also marks the first appearance of Kenneth’s (Allie’s) poetry inscribed baseball mitt.
At one point, Salinger pondered the idea of writing a play about Holden Caulfield. Instead, in 1951, he published The Catcher in the Rye. It became an instant hit, a best-seller, required reading for many High Schools, banned by others. Its success changed Salinger forever. He began to withdraw from the public eye, and his published output dwindled. Much like Jack Kerouac, Salinger was first and foremost a writer. He found media attention an undesirable and unwanted distraction.
So what about The Catcher in the Rye, and its protagonist, Holden Caulfield? Is this slim volume one of the best novels ever written? Why is it so beloved by readers, particularly adolescents? Perhaps a brief synopsis will shed some light on the story’s attraction.
The book opens with Holden in some type of hospital or sanatorium in California. He wants to tell us about the events of the previous Christmas, when Pencey Prep kicked him out because of his failing grades. Thus begins an amazing first person narrative by Salinger’s teenaged anti-hero, who quite often comes across as an adult, seemingly quite self-aware for his age. But not always.
On a hill above the Pencey football field, Holden is trying to work up some sort of feeling of goodbye for this institution which has ejected him and which in fact is the third in a line of schools to have sent him packing. After finding a suitable memory, he goes to visit one of his teachers, Old Mr. Spencer, who tries to give him some advice about life. Holden sits through as much of Spencer’s council as he can bear, and then beats a hasty retreat.
Initially, Holden’s plan is to hang around Pencey until school lets out, and then go home. But he gets fed up with the dorm, with the nerdy Ackley, and with his room-mate Stradlater , for whom he had written and then destroyed a composition about his dead brother Allie Caulfield’s poetry covered baseball glove.
He is also irritated with Stradlater because Stradlater had a date with Jane Gallagher, a girl whom Holden knows and likes. He was afraid that Stradlater was going to make sexual advances toward Jane.
He decides to take the train to New York instead, and packs all his stuff into two bags. Earlier in the day, when he was in the city with the fencing team (whose equipment he lost on the subway), he had bought a red hunting cap for one dollar at a sporting goods store. He now puts on this cap with the peak toward the back, and heads off to New York.
In Manhattan, Holden goes through a series of misadventures that leave him feeling more alienated and depressed than when he was still at Pencey Prep. He checks into a dumpy hotel, where among other things he is approached by the pimp/elevator operator, Maurice, who offers him a prostitute – Sunny – for “five bucks a throw, fifteen bucks till noon.” Sunny exacts an additional five dollars from Holden, despite their not having had sex. Holden soon checks out of the hotel, preferring to take his chances on the street.
He has a disastrous date with old girlfriend Sally Hayes. Things go well until he begins telling her about his dissatisfaction with Prep School and his life in general. He asks her to run off with him to Vermont, where he could get a job and they could live simply “somewhere with a brook and all” and eventually get married. Sally demurs, saying “we’re both practically children.”
After arguing with Sally he goes on to meet phony intellectual Carl Luce at a bar, gets drunk after Luce leaves, and winds up in Central Park. Here he drops and breaks a record called “Little Sally Beans” that he had bought earlier in the day for his sister. Almost crying now, he sets out to find the lagoon where the ducks live, to see if they are still there at Christmastime. He has been asking cab drivers since his arrival where the ducks go in winter, but to no avail. The pond is devoid of ducks, and he decides to sneak into his parent’s apartment, so he can see his sister Phoebe.
Holden slips undetected into his brother D.B.’s room, where Phoebe sleeps when D.B. is out of town. He gives her the shards of the broken “Little Sally Beans” record. Then he tells her what he wants to do in life. On the street, earlier in the day, he had heard a little kid singing “if a body catch a body coming through the rye”, a misinterpretation of the Robert Burns song, which goes “if a body meet a body”. Holden sees himself as the only big person amongst thousands of children in a large field of rye, and his job is to catch them before they fall over a cliff. “That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
Holden then goes to stay at the apartment of his old English teacher, Mr. Antolini, but leaves when he wakes up to find Mr. Antolini patting him on the head.
His next idea is to hitchhike out West, and pretend to be a deaf-mute so he doesn’t have to talk to anyone. He meets his sister at the museum to give her back the Christmas money that he had borrowed, and after an argument in which he persuades her not to go with him, he ends up buying her a ride on the carousel in Central Park. It begins to rain in torrents, but Holden continues to sit and watch as Phoebe goes around and around on the carousel.
The story ends back at the sanatorium in California where it first began.
In Holden Caulfield, Salinger captures the confused, rebellious teenager that many of us once were (or still are). Holden instinctively distrusts the establishment and the popular crowd; he blasts them as phony and pretentious. He seeks to protect the purity of childhood, as when he walks through Phoebe’s school while delivering a note to her, and tries to erase all the ‘fuck yous’ written on the walls.
He is precocious enough socially to drink at a bar or dance with thirty-year old women, but quick to burst into tears when Sunny the prostitute takes five dollars out of his wallet. His impetuous desire to move to Vermont or hitchhike out West is another manifestation of the individual in him trying to break free.
For the Holden Caulfields, those who don’t fit in, who don’t buy into the conformist mentality, who are critical of everything, who do not suspend disbelief willingly or unwillingly; for them adolescence is a struggle. Holden can’t think about his future because he is too busy trying to overcome the bullshit of now.
It is the identification of the reader with this character and his difficulties that makes the book so well-loved.