Phonies, Be Damned! The Timeless Message of The Catcher in the Rye
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By Edward Nawotka
J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye celebrates its 65th anniversary this summer, which means Holden Caulfield would have been 82 years old today. And it begs the question of what would the octogenarian think of our Internet, hype-cycle-driven, terrorized 21st century world?
For starters, when it comes to politics, he would surely have been a Bernie Sanders supporter. The Brooklyn-born, Senator from Vermont is the very embodiment of what-you-see-is-what-you-get, which is something Holden, a native New Yorker, would have appreciated. As for Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, Holden famously loathed “phonies” and would have likely been repelled by Trump’s boosterism and Clinton’s dissembling.
When it comes to culture, Holden was a cynic, but he was also a seeker of experience. In that respect he might view the current generation of millennials with some regard. It is they who have realized that the system is rigged against them and are beginning to rebel against it, just as Holden did when he left boarding school, after being expelled, for a walkabout in New York City. This was the 1950s, and taking off on one’s own was a real act of defiance. Would it still be so today? Perhaps today’s teenager would grab their passport, head to Kennedy airport and take a 3-day-excursion to London, Paris, Montreal or Istanbul instead…(Don’t believe me, check out Clara Bensen’s recent memoir No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering, which carries the subtitle, One dress. Three weeks. Eight countries—Zero Baggage).
The current generation, weaned as they have been on young adult fiction — from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games to The Fault in Our Stars — owes much to Salinger, whose novel is in many ways the “grandfather” of YA-lit as we know it today, and may very well be why the book, which the renowned literary critic Charles Van Doren considered “slight,” remains so popular today.
How popular? Very… All in all, it is said the book has sold some 65 million copies and continues to sell hundreds of thousands a year. It remains a fixture on high school reading lists and is often among the first “serious” books an American child reads, alongside To Kill a Mockingbird (which was published nine years after Catcher). This, despite it continuing to be a “favorite of censors since its publication,” or so says the American Library Association.
Salinger’s novel challenged the premise that books for younger readers need be both plot driven and chaste. Holden, just like many teenage boys in the book, is essentially on a quest to lose his virginity. Accordingly, he flirts with several different situations that are risqué, including voyeuristically watching some “perverts” (i.e. homosexuals), cruising a nightclub, inviting a prostitute to his hotel room, and drinking with and sleeping at the house of one of his former teachers, who Holden wakes to find is running his fingers through his hair…This all leads Holden to question his own sexual orientation.
That he doesn’t lose his virginity, despite several opportunities to do so, is just one example of how Holden, and by proxy Salinger, opts to hold onto his innocence just a little bit longer. If one knows the origin of the title of the novel, the story Holden tells makes sense: it is about the need to protect the vulnerable from the exploitation of the system. Such is the enduring power of the novel.
That the book was published in 1951 is also significant. It was the very beginning of the Beat era in New York — an age of ennui and anxiety that produced the writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs — all of whom created characters who could have been an evolution of Holden in later life. In Holden’s DNA there are subsequent generations of gabby, ennui-filled men who dominate many modern American novels: from the male protagonists in the oeuvre of Gen X hero David Foster Wallace, to the drug-fueled, hipster seeker in Ben Kunkel’s 2005 Indecision, or more recently the characters at the heart of two of 2016’s finer works of fiction, Greg Jackson’s Prodigals (see the amazing short story Wagner in the Desert) or Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens, which has been described as the first great novel of the millennial generation. There was even a sequel of sorts published in 2009: entitled 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, Swedish author Fredrik Colting depicted Caulfield as an aging septuagenarian. In that parody novel — a book that the then 90-year-old Salinger had blocked from US publication — Salinger is depicted as actually trying to kill off Holden.
Indeed, it would be interesting to hear what an octogenarian Holden Caulfield or a nearly 100-year-old Salinger would think of today’s world. It may very well happen. Though J.D. Salinger died six years ago, the 2013 oral biographical portrait Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, asserts that there exist numerous unpublished book manuscripts awaiting publication. Among them is said to be a manuscript that extends Holden’s story.
And despite the fact that some may consider The Catcher in the Rye somewhat underwhelming or “slight” if and when that unpublished manuscript appears — many millions of readers will read it.
Why? Well, Van Doren, in spite of his reserved praise of the book, nevertheless acknowledged that there was something magical in it. “It is relentlessly concerned with doing the same things that the greatest books do,” wrote Van Doren in The Joy of Reading. “It tells us to beware of traps and illusions, to open our eyes to the real world, where phonies fade away to the shadows that they truly are. It tells us that frauds and phonies are everywhere, especially in high places, and especially when we are young, because then we are impressionable and can be all the more easily manipulated. It tells us to trust no one who does not love us, and to reach out with love in return. It tells us that all these actions are more important than getting good marks and having a successful career and making lots of money. It tells us that the world is, really, almost completely upside down from what the authorities tell us. It tells us that we simply have to think for ourselves and take nothing on faith, even when it seems absolutely dependable and true. And it tells us, finally, that we will fail at this, and so will others, and that someone — probably us — will have to be a catcher in the rye, because otherwise the world will all fall down.”
The message, in other words, is timeless!