Beholding Holden

(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.

21 Responses

  1. These pictures are fantastic
    These pictures are fantastic – just as I pictured these characters. Last year I read Kenneth Slawenski’s biography of Salinger and loved it. In one of the early stories about the Caulfields, Vincent indicates that Holden is missing in action somewhere in the Pacific theatre during World War II. That really disturbed me – picturing Holden’s future after reading Catcher, I never imagined he’d die in war.
    Interesting article all around!

  2. Yeah, you hit the nail on the
    Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. This is the book that convinced me not to be a part of the ‘conformist mentality’ when I was a teenager. (Of course, easy to say 30 years later while I’m typing from a laptop in my cubicle at Dun & Bradstreet!)

    Rye is also the book that sparked my own interest in travelling cross country, which I did for a few years after high school – an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything!

  3. This has always been my least
    This has always been my least favorite Salinger — mainly because I don’t relate to Holden’s philosophical point of view. I don’t think everybody is all phony, and I don’t think kids like Phoebe have some kind of holy innocence that the rest of us lack (I think they just appear to, because they’re kids).

    I relate to Buddy, Franny and Seymour Glass much more. But, I do like looking at these pictures.

  4. MacEvoy – I like your
    MacEvoy – I like your comments on Catcher. One of the things that really interested me about the story is that Holden is really not a reliable narrator. We see things the way he sees them, but reality is different, like when Sally Hayes tells him to stop shouting and he denies he is shouting (even though he is). Or the incident of dancing with the thirty year old women. How would he know they are thirty years old? He is only a teenager for chrissake!

    When I was in college I had a friend who went to prep school, and in talking with him I got a whole new insight into Holden’s school life at prep school.

    The stuff holds up pretty well, although I must say that culturally New York of the late forties and early fifties is vastly different than now

  5. Even as a teenager, I thought
    Even as a teenager, I thought Holden was immature. But, I do like his complexity:

    “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.”

  6. Michael Norris and David
    Michael Norris and David Richardson make a brilliant team. I’ll never forget the suspense I felt near the end of Cather in the Rye, when Phoebe rides the carousel. I wasn’t sure if Holden was going to stay or go.

  7. Michael and David, I love
    Michael and David, I love your discussion of Catcher in combination with these awesome illustrations. This is one of the first books I read in the US after immigrating from Romania and it resonated a lot with me (I read it with an English-Romanian dictionary in hand) given its themes of trying to fit in/ feeling like an outsider.

  8. These pictures are really
    These pictures are really beautiful and the story is very harmful for me.

  9. Here again Michael and David
    Here again Michael and David have teamed up to tackle a cast of literary figures with intelligence and humor. Really well done. I’m wondering if you have considered your next joint project. Any plans?

  10. I, too, read “Catcher” as a
    I, too, read “Catcher” as a teenager and liked it.

    I, too, re-read it as an adult–and was startled by how bad it is. It is the continuous whine of a self-indulgent wretch.

  11. From J.D. Salinger, A
    From J.D. Salinger, A Life:
    “After brief stops in London and Paris, he traveled to Vienna. There he spent ten months living in the city’s Jewish quarter with a family that he quickly came to adore and with whose daughter he experienced his first serious romance. We know little of Salinger’s Austrian “family,” only that he idealized them to the extent that they would be symbols of purity and integrity for the rest of his life. Salinger would often look back upon them with increasing idealism, comparing life with his own family to the domestic bliss he encountered in Vienna. To Ernest Hemingway he later recalled memories of the innocent beauty of the family’s daughter. When gripped by despondency after the war, he returned to Austria in vain to seek her out. In 1947, he immortalized her and her family in his story “A Girl I Knew.”
    While Salinger was pursuing his Austrian romance, his Polish sponsor, Oskar Robinson, died of a heart attack in a Vienna casino, reportedly while winning at the roulette table, and Salinger was sent north to the Polish town of Bydgoszcz, where he stayed in a guest apartment of Robinson’s meatpacking factory and experienced the more basic side of his father’s import business.* This included getting up before dawn and toiling with peasants in the city slaughterhouse. Each morning, Salinger would trudge off to butcher pigs destined for the American market as “canned picnic hams.” He was accompanied by the head “slaughter master,” who enjoyed shooting his gun into lightbulbs, over the heads of squealing swine, and at birds that dared cross his path. It quickly dawned on Jerry that whatever the life of a meat exporter might involve, pigs held sway over much of it. If Salinger learned anything in Poland, it was that he was not suited for his father’s line of work.”

    The idea that Salinger worked in a meat packing plant in Vienna is all over the web. It is factually incorrect and an example of how the web amplifies misinformation. FYI

  12. Well Michael and David,
    Well Michael and David, you’ve done it again. It is almost as though you two are creating a new art form. Your collaboration is inspirational. Each of you in his own way presents us with insights and explanations which illucidate the text itself.

    Michael your writing is brilliantly clear and your sensitivity to Salinger is profound. Your writing often takes on a poetic tone while you point out to us the universality of his themes, a quality which is a necessary element of fine literature.

    Prior to this I’ve shared your work on Proust with my friends here in France. Having read the novel they were both astounded and pleased by your mutual efforts. This time, however, it is quite a different story.

    David, several of my French artist friends had various reactions, all of which were positive in spite of the fact that not one of them has ever read Salinger. I’ve heard such varying comments as, “Les visages sont très expressifs,” and “Les gestes, les expressions des yeux et des bouches, les mouvements du corps, et les vêtements, tout cela stimule un fort désir de lire le roman.” Contrarily another friend said, “Je suis très heureuse qu’il n’y ait pas de nom donné au-dessous de chaque portrait; comme ça ce que je sens vient directement du portrait lui même, et cette anonymité me donne la liberté de créér mon propre histoire derrière ces formidables et captivantes images.” A long winded way of saying these portraits could be “stand alone” works. The French are admittedly an analytical bunch.

    So on all fronts this undertaking is an enormous success. It has given me and my friends insights into the artistic and collaborative processes and has stimulated interesting discussions among us. Thank you both for sharing your efforts to the benefit of many people in many different places. Some of us on this side of the pond eagerly wait to see what it is you two have up your mutual sleeve.

  13. Just wondering why Verlaine
    Just wondering why Verlaine drinking absinthe on the masthead of Literary Kicks?

  14. Excuse me Levi; In spite of
    Excuse me Levi; In spite of the fact that you did not answer my question, your clever and witty response did make my smile. It is my own fault that I did not receive a proper answer. I should have written, “Why has Literay Kicks chosen to put “Verlaine drinking absinthe” (if that, indeed, is the title) on its masthead?” Rather than “Why Verlaine drinking absinthe on its masthead?” I purposely omitted the verb “is” erroneously thinking that my honest question would be understood. So I apologize for my lack of clarity.

    To respond to your “because he’s thirsty” explanation, which I assume means that you inadvertently supplied the necessary “is” to my query, I might add that Verlaine was bright enough to know that alcohol does not quench thirst and that he, like so many artisits, poets, writers, and scientists sought and still seek the unquenchable which is, in no small way, the basis of art, war, discovery, politics, invention, greed, religion, and sometimes, even love. It is one of the forces which, regtettably or not, distinguishes humankind from other life forms; we never have enough.

    More to the point, however, is my same question above. What was the motivation or idea in selecting the Verlaine image? I am, simply, and honestly unquenchably curious. Perhaps I’m too obtuse to get any intended symbolism. Would anyone out there, however, agree with me that it is a curious choice?

    Merci from La Belle France,

  15. Well, Ron, you know that
    Well, Ron, you know that alcohol doesn’t quench your thirst, and I know it, but did Paul Verlaine know it? I have a feeling he didn’t know it.

    I guess I’ve always thought of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud as a basic part of the alternative literary canon, wouldn’t you say? I probably became fascinated with them via the hint on Bob Dylan’s album “Blood on the Tracks”, and it was helped along by folks like Patti Smith and Tom “Verlaine” of Television. Many people I know like Rimbaud better of the two, but I’ve always been partial to Verlaine’s gentle poetry. I’m also fascinated by the fact that he lived through the Paris Commune in 1870-1871, which must have been even more scary than Rimbaud’s adventures in colonial Africa. So, yeah, I’m a pretty big Verlaine fan. I created the logo as the original Literary Kicks logo back in 1994 — it’s always been the site’s logo.

  16. More great stuff, though I
    More great stuff, though I imagine Holden with wider, more vulnerable eyes.

    I have mixed feelings about Catcher. Even as a kid I didn’t want to romanticize Holden’s confusion and anger. I’m not sure what to make of “100 Best Novels” lists with Catcher in the top ten or twenty.

    Still Holden’s voice in the novel is pitch perfect and unforgettable and Salinger’s writing overall is splendid. It is a classic.

  17. Glad to see Salinger
    Glad to see Salinger emphasized. He took a good look at the world around him, and his take on it is significant. He put up life’s questions before his readers, and it’s encouraging to see him still being discussed. (The art is good to look at too.)

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