Choose Your Own Advent, Day 4: The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. SalingerChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Catcher in the Rye
Author: J.D. Salinger
Year: 1951

The Catcher in the Rye is a deceptively complex novel. It’s far less a story than it is a collection of related vignettes that weave a longform character sketch of Holden Caulfield, literature’s most prominent troubled youth. It’s a picaresque that doesn’t cover much geographical space, but charts–with disarming effectiveness–the worried expanse of the adolescent mind.

It’s one of my favorites. I’ve read it more times than I can count. Often around the holidays. When we’re supposed to be happy.

It works pretty well around then.

It’s a great novel, and also one against which there’s been some critical backlash. We read it at some point, sure, and thought it was brilliant and wise and profound, but we’ve grown up since then…and Holden, pointedly, has not. That’s not only because he’s a character in an unchanging novel; it’s because he’s unchanging my design. He’s stunted in his development, willingly and stubbornly so.

When many of us first read it–it’s commonly assigned in high school, after all–we were like that. We knew better than so many others. We felt things nobody else felt. We were the ones pushing back against the profane soullessness of the adult world, and we were right to do so…because we could change things if only we wouldn’t compromise, if only we’d hold on to what we had, if only we believed we could do so much…

And then we graduated.

We went to college.

We got jobs. We got married.

We had children, we bought homes. We joined rotary clubs.

The Catcher in the Rye was just a novel. Maybe we had a copy on our shelves. More likely, we did not. We’d look back, if we ever looked back, and see Holden as a silly, frustrating child. Perhaps we’d be embarrassed that we ever identified with him.

After all…he needed to grow up.

In fact, I’ve had friends of mine–readers I respect–share more or less precisely that opinion with me, without the biographical details. Holden Caulfield himself doesn’t represent to them the follies of youth…their identification with Holden Caulfield was itself the folly.

And I think that’s missing the point.

It’s easy to fall into the trap–especially when young, impressionable, lonesome, adrift–of glorifying Holden’s outlook, and finding little in the book beyond loose identification with its protagonist. But as we grow up–as we learn to read literature better, and more completely–we should find a lot more. Holden’s flaws should become more apparent. And what we once celebrated as youthful rebellion should reveal itself to be a kind of steadfast blockheadedness coupled with at least some degree of mental illness.

But there is wisdom in Holden Caulfield. A kind of wisdom, anyway. A willingness to yearn for a world he’s never actually known, a desire to see innocence preserved, a warped sort of respectfulness that he often feels even when he fails to demonstrate it…

…and that’s the moral. The fact that this flawed, embarrassing, self-sabotaging young man still has something to say. Still has something to offer. Still represents so much of the good that is–or could be–in the world. Holden Caulfield is a deeply flawed human being…but he’s still human. And I think that’s what makes the book difficult for so many readers who’ve “grown up”; they see more of the world in black and white. Their experiences have taught them to file people away more easily. They’re less willing to engage with flawed individuals than they were as children, as teenagers, as young adults.

Than they were before they got hurt for doing so.

And so Holden Caulfield, to them, is the old friend they’re glad they lost touch with. The one who never changed. The one who is still haunting the same places, still complaining about the same things, still alone. Still struggling with the same problems. Still where he’ll always be.

The Catcher in the Rye reminds us, with its own refusal to age, that at one point we did hang around with Holden. We loved him. We were forgiving of him in a way we are not today. We are the ones who have changed, and that may or may not be for the better.

We might be further ahead. We might have left the protagonist of some novel we used to love behind. But at what cost? Do we rob ourselves of the fond memories we once shared with him? Do we dismiss the next Holden Caulfield we meet?

Didn’t he have some kind of point? Didn’t he just want the world to be a little…better?

The Catcher in the Rye is designed to help close readers question themselves, and their outlooks. It never wanted to hold up Holden Caulfield as some exemplary human being worthy of specific idolization. It wanted to craft a believably flawed person and catch him at a painfully transitional time in his life. It wanted to capture in words everything struggling young people could only dream of being able to articulate. It wanted to speak for those who may not have been convinced they’d ever find their voice.

And it succeeded. The Catcher in the Rye was, and continues to be, a massively successful book. It’s still changing lives. It’s still helping young readers to understand what it means to be alive in a world that probably isn’t what they wished it would be. It’s still helping people to find their place.

It’s just a shame that many readers eventually feel that they’ve outgrown it, and are reluctant to engage with it differently as adults.

Trying to read it again in your thirties, your forties, your fifties, and being ashamed of what once resonated with your distant, youthful self…well, that means you’re reading it wrong.

You should be looking instead for the different lesson it would like to teach you as an adult. You should be learning about what we lose as we grow up, and the danger of leaving the wrong things behind.

6 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Advent, Day 4: The Catcher in the Rye”

  1. Ha, your assessment captures my response to the book pretty well. I was the victim of over-hyping. I did NOT read it in high school (I skipped about 1/2 the books assigned to me), but someone handed it to me in my 20s and told me I’d wonder where this book had been my whole life. You know, like “It’s so you!” (Same thing happened with Hitchhiker’s Guide, which I didn’t enjoy at all.) But that was over half my life ago. I’ll dig it up and give it another go. YOU PRICK. You keep telling me what to do!!!!

    1. Man, I can’t imagine skipping assigned reading. Finding out what books we got to read was like Christmas to me!

  2. Two or three years ago, I read some of the books that are read in US highschools. Of Mice and Men, A Scarlett Letter, To Kill A Mockingbird, Watership Down, Catcher in the Rye and a few more. I liked all of them a lot (except for Scarlett Letter), and felt a bit of frustration that these books resonated so much better with me than the stuff I read in my (Austrian) school.

    Anyway, it’s a long time since I read Catcher, so I don’t remember it that well, but I enjoyed it a lot. Had I read it as a teenager, I would have identified with Holden very well. With 27 or so, I just found it to be touching and atmospherically strong. Holdens trauma made him lash out and act strange (or maybe even crazy). I didn’t find his way of acting correct, but I could felt like I understood him. Yes, he is whiny, but something horrible happened to him.

    I need to reread Catcher at some point. After I have read the other 100 books I still haven’t read.

    1. This is interesting to me. What are some of the common required books in Austria? Not that I expect to recognize all of them, but I’m interested.

      Also commonly assigned in American schools: The Crucible (play), something Shakespeare (usually Romeo and Juliet), The Great Gatsby, The Jungle, Lord of the Flies. There might be another few I’m forgetting, but that may help if you’re interested in reading more!

  3. Great write up, Phil. Catcher was one of my favorite novels back in the day, and i too have read it many times. I actually still have the copy we were given in my high school english class — i never returned it (or rather, i returned it at the end of the school year only to swipe my copy back from the teacher’s desk after it was logged in that i had returned it — shades of your Catch 22 story!)

    However, i haven’t read it since college, when i also discovered and snatched up the rest of Salinger’s works (Franny & Zooey, et al), which all sit proudly on the bookshelf to this day. You’ve inspired me to go back and read it again now in this stage of my life and i’m curious to see how i receive it. Knowing me, i expect that i will appreciate and love it as much as i did once upon a time, particularly as despite the passage of life and time, my inner-self is still very much the same and in-tune as it once was.

    Which i’m never entirely sure is a good thing or a bad thing, ;)

    1. I liked most of the Glass family stuff, but, man, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters was my favorite of those. I didn’t read any non-Catcher Salinger until well into my adult life, and that’s okay as I doubt I would have gotten much out of them when I was younger. But that one in particular stuck out. It might be due for a re-read. :)

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