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American Mythologies, #4: The Catcher in the Rye is a sophomoric over-rated novel about teen angst

The Catcher in the Rye is a 1951 novel by J. D. Salinger. A controversial novel originally published for adults, it has since become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage angst and alienation.The novel’s protagonist Holden Caulfield has become an icon for teenage rebellion.

– the all-knowing wikipedia

Thus speaketh Wikipedia, and although ordinarily I would eschew Wikipedia as a less-than-scholarly source, when dealing with American mythologies, it is the authority, the ultimate collection of all of the opinions that have gathered over the years to become myth. Whether or not you like The Catcher in the Rye, I think we can all agree that it has achieved mythic status in the pantheon of American literature. And Salinger’s legendary reclusiveness has only added to the mysterious air of cool that clings to the novel.

I would argue that, over the years, our ideas of what the novel is about have taken on a life of their own, so that now they seem more real in some ways than the original story, and they bear little relation to it. Now we think of Holden as a rebel, a maverick, and if they had ever made the book into a movie (which, mercifully, they never will) it would have starred James Dean or a young Marlon Brando. Wikipedia tells us, “Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States,” because Holden was a bad role model, further adding, “Often the challengers have been unfamiliar with the plot itself.” No less than three shootings have been somehow associated with the book. Of course none of this has anything to do with anything that actually happens in the book.

The very phrase, “teen angst” is disparaging; it suggests that the nature of the angst is trivial and misguided, a self-centered foolishness to be outgrown, born of boredom and a bratty hatred for everything and everybody. Teen angst is all about ME, and why I’m so unfortunate. And I think Holden is thinking about everyone around him: his elderly teacher, the ducks in Central Park, his kid sister, his old friend, his dead brother, children in some mis-heard song, some miserable kid prostitute in a green dress. I think that’s why it’s beautiful. I don’t think Holden hates anyone, I think his problem, the source of his pain, is that he loves everyone he meets. Even with people he doesn’t like he finds something to love. The kid who is a terrific bore is an excellent whistler, “So I don’t know about bores. Maybe you shouldn’t feel too sorry if you see some swell girl getting married to them. They’re don’t hurt anybody, most of them, and maybe they’re secretly all terrific whistlers or something. Who the hell knows? Not me.”

He loves everybody: the mother he meets on the train, the nuns he meets in the station, the gripey teacher who yells “good luck” at him, the girl whose roller skate he tightens. He’s not the scowling kid who scrawls “Fuck You” every where he goes, he’s the kid who gets depressed when he sees that somebody else has done that. He doesn’t hate school because he’s too cool for it, it’s just the opposite, he hates the fact that people are forced to be more cool, more contained, to dim their enthusiasm. “What I mean is, lots of time you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most. I mean you can’t help it sometimes. What I think is, you’re supposed to leave somebody alone if he’s at least being interesting and he’s getting all excited about something. I like it when somebody gets excited about something. It’s nice.”

He doesn’t mistrust adults or authority figures, unless they’re hypocritical or tyrannical. I think he recognizes that they’re as confused as he is, that you never really outgrow the bewilderment caused by human connection, by sex, by loss, by loneliness. I think Holden is a teenager in the way Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes is a six-year-old; his age allows him to say things we’re all feeling, as does the fact that he keeps calling himself a moron and a madman. There’s a passage in the book in which he’s talking about Laurence Olivier’s performance of Hamlet and he says, “He was too much like a goddamn general, instead of a sad, screwed-up type guy.” And I think Holden is that sad, screwed up type guy, too, not a fighter, not a rebel. And he’s got good reason to be sad.

In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the title characters are called in to diagnose Hamlet’s sadness, to understand why he has changed. After much discussion, Rosencrantz concludes, “To sum up: your father, who you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped on to his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?” It’s like that with The Catcher in the Rye, too. His brother died at the age of eleven, when Holden was only thirteen. Three short years prior to the time that the story is set. He’s been in one boarding school after another since that time, alone, lonely, homesick, mourning. It’s Christmas time and he’s afraid to go home because he’s failed out of another school. Why would he behave in this extraordinary way? Why would he have a breakdown and become sick and sit in the park thinking he was going to die? Why would he talk aloud to his dead brother, wracked with regret over the one time he didn’t let him ride to his friend’s house years ago? How could he not?!

He’s searching for some sort of meaningful connection, and he’s disappointed by people who pretend to be something they’re not, or hide who they really are. But he loves them anyway. He reminds me of Alyosha in Brothers Karamazov, “Do you know, Lise, my elder told me once to care for most people exactly as one would for children, and for some of them as one would for the sick in hospitals.” Holden feels sorry for people a lot, and for him that’s a form of love. At the end of Franny and Zooey, when Zooey, as an adolescent, says everybody is a moron, his brother Seymour tells him to shine his shoes or be funny for the fat lady. And then Franny and Zooey conjure up a cancer patient somewhere, listening to them talk, and Zooey says the fat lady is Christ, which means that everybody is Christ, but they’re Jewish, so it’s not in any Christian sense of the word. It’s about loving everybody that you meet. And I think Holden does that. In Brothers Karamazov Ivan talks at great length about the suffering of children, and he asks Alyosha if he would kill one child to bring peace to the entire world. Alyosha wouldn’t, he would save the child, and Holden, standing on the edge of a cliff, would save all the children if he could, as they come running through the rye.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. 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. I know it’s crazy.”

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