Vision of the Ducks: Holden Caulfield’s Journey in Central Park

The image in this week’s Litkicks Mystery Spot #7 is from a 1951 aerial map of New York City. It shows the southeast corner of Central Park, a location immortalized in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. This is where Holden Caulfield stared at ducks in a pond and wondered where they would go in the winter when the pond froze. And it’s where he watched his younger sister Phoebe ride on a carousel at the touching end of the book.

The remarkable thing about this image is its timeliness: Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, so this image lets us see the park as Holden would have seen it. The following detailed images are from current versions of the same New York City map, and show how these locations in Central Park look today. Here’s the Central Park Zoo, which is near the upper right of the 1951 picture. The large octagonal roof on the bottom left is the roof over the carousel. This carousel had just been installed at this location in 1951, replacing an earlier carousel which had burned down, which is why it does not yet have its distinctive roof in the older image. You can still ride this merry-go-round today, or, if you wish, bring your younger sister and let her ride while you sit on a bench and watch. No sign or marker anywhere near the carousel indicates the literary significance of the spot.

South of the zoo and the carousel is the lagoon, a popular spot due to its easy access from the tourist-rich neighborhood of Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, which includes the Plaza Hotel and FAO Schwarz. This is where Holden Caulfield wondered, so memorably, about ducks:

I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.

I mentioned in the preceding question that another significant literary spot is visible on this photograph. I’m thinking of the Plaza Hotel, the large U-shaped building just across the street from the park’s southeastern tip. This is where Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan had their showdown in The Great Gatsby. But, of course, I realized after I wrote this that there are many, many other literary spots here as well. The Plaza Hotel was also home to Eloise (who, one imagines, might have gotten along well with Phoebe Caulfield, if they’d ever met). The bridge over the lagoon is where the heroine of Sweet Charity got dunked in the great Bob Fosse movie version of that Broadway musical. Holly Golightly’s favorite jewelry store and breakfast spot is just south of and across the street from the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue. Maybe this is one reason walking through midtown Manhattan is so exciting: there’s artistic significance in pretty much every step you take.

This is the second Litkicks Mystery Spot (the first is here) to use an amazing, wonderful historical photographic map of New York City available on the city’s website. It’s a little tricky to navigate this Google Map mashup — you have to click on the little camera icon to dial back your years to 1926 or 1951, and then click on the little hand icon to navigate around. Clunky software aside, this historical map is just about one of my favorite things in the entire world, and you better believe I’ve spent hours staring at all five boroughs. I hope will continue to add to and improve this map, and I hope other cities will put up similar online exhibits too.

Thanks to all who responded to the question! It may not have been as easy as I thought it was (the real giveaway, hidden as always, was my use of the modifier “goddam”, and my general attempt to use surly Holdenesque language, in the original question). I’ll keep tweaking the formula — I don’t want these questions to be either too easy or too hard. The next Litkicks Mystery Spot will be coming your way soon.

4 Responses

  1. I love ducks sooooo much!!!!!
    I love ducks sooooo much!!!!!! I ust cant help myself. Just thinking about ducks makes me cry. I am crying right now just thinking about them!!!!!!

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