Pieces of what became J.D. Salinger’s first novel appeared in The New Yorker in the late 1940s, and the completed The Catcher in the Rye lurched into the American imagination in 1951. The narrator is a smart, sensitive, 17-year-old named Holden Caulfield, who tells about the three days after he flunked out of Pencey, an expensive Pennsylvania boarding school. He takes a train home to New York City but wanders the city instead of going to his parents’ Upper East Side apartment.
The Catcher in the Rye has become a little classic: always in print, still widely read, assigned in thousands of English courses and festooned, like Holden in his peak-turned-backwards red hunting cap, with showy appendages. Today, you can buy a spiral-bound The Catcher in the Rye Activity Pack or the Cliff, Spark, Max, York, Pan, Routledge, Barron’s, and Bloom’s crib notes. At any given moment, some school district is weighing the decision to flunk Mr. Caulfield’s little memoir out of its library.
Those censorious school boards put a spring back into Holden’s step. His book is 57 and he’s pushing 73. That’s a long career as America’s disappointed, alienated, angry scourge of all things phony. One might think that Holden would appear a little quaint to today’s readers. He counts it the height of sophistication to get a cocktail at a bar. Recreational drugs are an unglimpsed horizon. He treats girls as individuals with lives of their own and disdains the smooth-talking cads only looking to score. The age of “friends with benefits” and “hooking up” is as remote from his sensibility as condom ads on TV. Come to think of it, Holden Caulfield never even saw a television. He is busy sneering at what we think of as high-brow art: “You take Sir Laurence Olivier, for example. I saw him in Hamlet. … I just don’t see what’s so marvelous about Sir Laurence Olivier, that’s all.” Holden doesn’t like movies (they are phony) or theater (“you got dizzy watching people sit down and stand up”).
He tries to erase a “F–k you” that someone had scribbled on the wall at his little sister’s grade school (“It drove me damn near crazy.”) because the kids would see it and “wonder what the hell it meant.” These days, those kids can recite 50 Cent and Eminem exhausting the English vocabulary for rhyme words on copulative acts.
Holden reads Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Ring Lardner novels, Thomas Hardy, and Isak Dinesen. Today, he would be in a “gifted and talented” class rather than booted from his third prep school.
His social attitudes are decidedly antique. He calls homosexuals “flits” and flees into the night when a former professor pats him on the head. He’s boorish when a friend tells him he has a Chinese girlfriend. “No kidding! She’s Chinese, for Chrissake?” Multiculturalism has yet to dawn in Holden’s universe.
And yet Holden Caulfield is one of us. Though he fantasizes about heading off into the woods and living in a cabin, he is no Huck Finn, lighting out for the territory. Huck chaffed under the artificialities of “sivilization,” but he wasn’t disdainful of other people. Holden can barely find another person who deserves his respect. His life, at least in the days of The Catcher in the Rye, consists of a nonstop litany of denouncing almost everyone he meets or remembers as “phony.” The “almost” here matters: Holden makes distinctions. His dead brother Allie, his younger sister Phoebe, imaginary children whose innocence he protects, and some nuns he meets in a diner pass the test. No one else lives up to Holden’s standards—including himself.
He may not have been the first angry young man in American literature, but he arrived as the herald of a new kind of anger. It defines him. Holden is pretty much a personified sneer. Before The Catcher in the Rye, such characters were found in American fiction, but they were treated as silly and contemptible. Holden, however, is the protagonist, and we are meant to admire him. His contempt for American life is a badge of something worthy: his relentless pursuit of authenticity.
His constant word of condemnation is that people are “phony.” This doesn’t mean that they are hypocrites and dissemblers. Holden’s discernment goes deeper. Any slight suggestion that a person does not wholly live up to his public image is phoniness, and phoniness is for Holden a violation of the way things should be. He likes children because they are what they seem. The adult world, in which we deal with complexity and ambiguity elicits his righteous scorn.
Before New Anger came on the scene, Americans almost universally embraced an ethic of self-restraint in the face of provocation. Children were taught that giving over to anger was babyish and that a good person sought to resist the impulse to burst forth as self-destructive and harmful to others. Of course people got angry anyway, but they did so in a culture that didn’t celebrate anger as rich, empowering, and rooted in a quest for personal authenticity. An exception existed for anger channeled into a moral summons. The abolitionist movement and the temperance movement were plenty angry, but the anger was also tightly controlled and focused.
That plainly contrasts with a culture in which anger has become both a lifestyle and an ambient condition. We now have a society in which a great many people feel entitled to be angry because they have built their lives around some permanent and unappeasable grievance. Prosperous African-Americans, high-status celebrity homosexuals, rich white businessmen, feminist writers with tenured professorships and best-selling books, illegal immigrants enjoying wages and social benefits far beyond what they had at home are joined by their sense of grievance. Their patented resentments receive an official certificate of authenticity in contemporary America.
And down at the bottom of the deed, in a flamboyant scrawl, is the signature of Holden Caulfield, one of the founding fathers of New Anger.
After I had written these thoughts, I went for a winter’s walk in Central Park and found myself sitting on a bench by the lagoon. A seedy-looking older fellow was standing nearby, looking out on the black water. Suddenly he turned and asked, “Say, do you know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?”
I stared. “Holden? Is that you?” Suddenly things fell into place. The long vanishing act of “J.D. Salinger” made sense. Salinger, who last published a story in 1965, has supposedly been living in seclusion. But what if there was no J.D. Salinger? What if “Salinger” was just a Caulfield prank, and in 1965 Holden had just retired his pseudonym, along with the actor he hired to play the Salinger part in interviews? “Holden Caulfield,” of course, isn’t the real Holden Caulfield’s name either, but I don’t want to expose him to the publicity that he has so long avoided. Holden did, however, agree to answer some questions over drinks at a nearby bar.
Q: Mr. Caulfield—may I call you Holden? “Mr.” seems so, you know, phony—
You probably hate the phrase, but you were basically a child star. When you published your memoir, you were just 17. The book was a huge success and people have kept reading it. Every now then some school board takes it off the library shelves, and you’re a celebrity all over again. What accounts for the longevity of The Catcher in the Rye?
A: First, would you care for a cocktail? On me. I’m loaded. I’m having a scotch and soda.
The book. I wrote it for the psychoanalyst guy that my parents sent me to after I flunked out of old Pencey Prep. Funny. They had me back as commencement speaker last year. Can you believe it? I flunked every course I ever took at Pencey except English. I went because I thought it would be a gas. And it really was, although it was kind of sad too, if you know what I mean.
But I was going to tell you about the book. What crap. I think it caught on for all the wrong reasons. Remember that part where I told about going into old Ernie’s club in Greenwich Village? Ernie was this big fat colored guy who could really play the piano. He was a snob, too. You could tell by the way he’d make these humble, phony bows. Anyway, what I said about Ernie in the book is that if you’re so good that you get all that attention, you’re bound to become a phony because you don’t even know anymore if you’re playing right or not. Old Ernie could stink it up and still sound good, so he didn’t know anymore if it was really good.
That’s what the bastards do to you. If you don’t watch it, you start showing off. I tried to tell the story just like it happened. Maybe I got a little bit of it, and people recognized that little bit as true and then turned the book into something like the goddamned Bible for Alienated Youth. You sure you don’t want a scotch and soda?
Q: No thanks. So the reason The Catcher in the Rye kept selling is that you told a truth that no one else was telling?
A: No. It was like my old English teacher Mr. Antolini told me, there were lots of guys—historians, and poets mostly—who told the truth, but I just didn’t know it. I thought I was the first one, except maybe for my brother DB and my sister Phoebe—she understood things—to see how phony everything is. I think people were just sort of shocked that a kid would notice. And I was just a kid who wondered where the ducks in Central Park went when the pond froze over. Have you figured that out yet?
Q: Aren’t you being fake humble like Ernie the piano player?
A: No, it’s true. I was a kid, still kind of shaken up by my brother’s death and doing lousy in every school my parents could get me into. I knew I could describe stuff, like when I wrote that essay for my roommate, Stradlater, and described Allie’s baseball mitt. But I didn’t intend to write a goddamned masterpiece.
Q: Who was J.D. Salinger?
A: Oh, that was a great joke. Salinger was the biggest phony this side of Hollywood. This guy thought he was all Existentialist and Buddhist and all that crap. I thought it would be a gas to put his name on the story that the shrink made me write down. The Fictional Character. That’s what Phoebe used to call me.
Q: Do you sometimes feel fictional?
A: Like some character in a book? No. I’m my own author. Other people are characters in my story.
After I dropped that Salinger crap, my brother DB got me a job in Hollywood working on scripts. I didn’t do whole scripts. But when they were having trouble with an angry scene, I’d get rid of the phony stuff and make it real.
Q: But I thought you hated Hollywood…
A: I do. That’s what so funny. Hollywood is all phony but it turns out they know it so they need people like me to make it less phony.
Q: So what scripts did you doctor?
A: Hundreds of them. You’ve seen some of my stuff in “Five Easy Pieces,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Apocalypse Now.” I forbid them using my name. Putting your name up there is where the phoniness begins. Anyway, I didn’t work just in film. You’ve seen my work elsewhere. The “Yippie Manifesto” for the 1968 Democratic Convention? “Rise up and abandon the creeping meatball!” That was me.
Q: Any recent work?
A: I’ve been doing writers workshops for the next generation. You’ve heard of some my students. Augusten Burroughs —you, know Running with Scissors, about his parents signing him over to his shrink who then molests him? And you know James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces? Jim’s my protégé.
Q: Didn’t he invent a fake memoir?
A: He didn’t invent it. I did. And it’s authentically fake, not phony.
Q: I don’t get the distinction.
A: If it’s authentically fake, it’s real. All great literature is authentically fake. The real King Lear was probably some old geezer running around looking for his false teeth. Shakespeare made him authentically fake. Phoniness is sticking to the facts when you know the facts don’t tell the real story.
Q: So you are more concerned with inward truth than mere facts?
A: It’s not so much inward vs. outward as authentic vs. phony.
Q: What did you think when Mark David Chapman, the guy who shot John Lennon, was arrested at the scene paging through The Catcher in the Rye? He claimed to have modeled his life on yours. He told police, “I’m sure the large part of me is Holden Caulfield.” And he later explained that he thought that killing Lennon, who he said was a “phony,” would turn him into Holden Caulfield.
A: I never shot anyone. I don’t have the guts. As I said in the book, “I’d rather push a guy out the window or chop his head off with an ax than sock him in the jaw.”
Look, I get angry, but I’m not responsible for every lunatic that reads my book and thinks he’s me.
Q: True, but the book does have a certain appeal to alienated kids. I remember reading somewhere that it’s “one of the few novels that even the most chronically-stoned and voided-out ninth grader will actually read.”
A: First, it is not a novel. Second, the kids who read it recognize that what I was saying is still true. The world is full of phonies. That doesn’t mean they should shoot the phonies.
Q: So are you happy about the way things turned out?
A: I never really settled down. Married a bunch of times, had some kids. But marriage is so phony. And I didn’t want to raise my kids the way I was raised. They were free to do what they wanted. And what they wanted was to stay with their mothers, which was good. I love them and all, but it was better at a distance. I was just born too soon. The ’60s were awesome, but I was already in my 30s by the time Woodstock came along. I liked the innocence, and the sexual revolution was great, but there were a lot of phonies in the so-called counterculture. I hated those SDSers, trying to turn everything into politics. I hated it when people like Susan Sontag praised “campiness.” Ironic praise of phoniness—can you believe it? I just wanted to be me.
Q: What about the rest of the culture?
A: I look at all this crap—Cliff goddamned Notes for Catcher in the Rye—and I want to puke. It’s so phony. You’d think a college kid could read a little story like that without some pretentious jerk telling him what every other sentence means.
Q: The culture?
A: I don’t get involved much in politics. I liked old Bob Dole. “Where’s the outrage?” That’s the spirit. Where’s the goddamned outrage? I don’t have much use for these current politicians. They’re all phonies. But I’ll tell you one thing I like. It’s those bloggers. They know where the outrage is. And if one of them gets it wrong, all the others pile on and tear him apart…
When I got home I tried to check on Holden’s story, and I just can’t tell. Wikipedia says J.D. Salinger was a real person and that Holden Caufield was just a character he wrote about. The Catcher in the Rye disguises names and places, so it’s hard to tell for sure if it was a true story. The “Holden Caulfield” I met in Central Park looked the right age. On the other hand, New York City is full of people pretending to be someone else.
Perhaps it’s best to leave this unresolved. Holden Caulfield at 73 is a man who, more than most, can look around him and see a city, a people, even a nation that has at last caught up with him. If he were a proud man, he could take satisfaction in having inspired us. His rich mixture of qualities—disdainful sensitivity, lethargic self-regard, whiny unhappiness—are now our qualities. If the pursuit of authenticity now trumps respect for others, Holden Caulfield deserves some of the credit. If we turned aimless adolescent anger into a lifelong cult of being pissed-off, Caulfield should receive some of the votive offerings. If we prefer America awash in vulgarity and rudeness to one trapped in the smug and stale conventions of civility, we ought to thank Holden Caulfield for helping to light our way.
Peter Wood is provost of The King’s College in New York City and the author of A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now.
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