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