You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobdy’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. ~ Holden Caulfield
I recently re-read The Catcher in the Rye because it had been at least 15 years since I last read it. It had faded to dust in my memory. I couldn’t even recall the protagonist’s name. (Hudson? Hayden?)
It came back into mind when Jesse and I watched a documentary on JD Salinger. Frankly, I don’t think Salinger would have been too impressed with it if he’d seen it himself. It was heavy on war details and how Salinger hated to be photographed, but there wasn’t enough on his writing, if you ask me. The movie did, however, do a decent job of depicting his tenacity as a writer.
I had some airplane time during a holiday trip to Ohio, so I decided to embark on a JD Salinger refresher.
To be honest, in the beginning of the novel, I was more annoyed than moved. I had my trusty Bic pen close by, hoping for the inspiration to feverishly underline passages or make notes in the margin. But, in the first 50 pages, I struggled just to get through. At that point, when people on the plane saw me reading and asked how it was, I replied, simply, “Depressing.”
We had Holden Caulfield as the narrator—a sixteen year old, prep-school dropout that came from plenty of money. He was bored with his life, intolerant of most of the people in his midst. He threw out the term phonies ad nauseum and hit the reader over the head with one statement after another regarding how depressed he was.
But as I initially saw it, he was wiling to do nothing about his depression but run away, chase women, spend money and get drunk.
And then something unexpected happened to me.
It was the same feeling as when I’ve had a strong, perhaps negative, perception of someone that got flipped upside-down upon seeing a glimmer of kindness in that person that I hadn’t seen before. This happens all the time in life. Holden’s human-ness surfaced for me in the accumulation of scenes and details. I found that I went from loathing him as one of the complaining, entitled, sex-crazed teenagers that I knew so well at that age to relating to him, his heartbreak, and the sweeping judgements about life that worked as sort of an armor for him.
I, for one, can understand having an armor. At least a little. (Insert author clearing throat here.)
Salinger created his character to be undeniably human. And the glimpses of sanity—and, dare I say, hope?— that Salinger wove into the narrative were just enough to remind us that even this confused, shit-talking adolescent had a heart. He also had an absolute—often desperate—desire to connect with the people around him.
Suddenly, I found myself pulling out my pen again and again, not because the passages were exquisite in their articulation or full of grand poetry, but because of the image that was conveyed through the words. And the depth of that image, and the volumes it spoke.
The story evolved for me into a gallery of threaded together prose-photographs. Each one told a story of its own about existence, humanity, pain, confusion. Once I began to resonate with the character, I was unable to stop seeing examples of this.
Here we have Holden remembering a moment he shared with his old friend and love, Jane:
It was raining like hell and we were out on her porch, and all of a sudden this booze hound her mother was married to came out on the porch and asked Jane if there were any cigarettes in the house…old Jane wouldn’t answer him…so the guy asked her again, but she still wouldn’t answer him. Finally the guy went inside the house. When he did, I asked Jane what the hell was going on. She wouldn’t even answer me,…then, all of a sudden, this tear plopped down on the checkerboard. On one of the red squares, boy I can still see it… I don’t know why, but it bothered the hell out of me. (78)
Here we are in a hotel room where Holden has called for a prostitute. She winds up being younger than he expected and this disturbs him, so he decides he’d just like to pay to talk to her. Not believing this, she undresses anyway and asks him to hang up her dress so it doesn’t get wrinkled.
I took her dress over to the closet and hung it up for her. It was funny. It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it up. I thought of her going into a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably thought she was just a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell—I don’t know why, exactly. (96)
Here, Holden runs into a pair of nuns in a diner. He describes one of them as having glasses, a big nose, but a “helluva kind face.” He offers to give them money for their church.
They let me give them ten bucks as a contribution…They both kept thanking me so much it was embarrassing. (110)
Holden’s excessive talk about depression and his aggravation with the ubiquitous phonies began to feel less and less real when grounded in scenes like with Jane, the prostitute and the nuns. It became more like kid-chatter. Something for the other, more beautiful—and oh-so vulnerable—notions to sprout from.
New York’s terrible when somebody laughs on the street late at night. You can hear it for miles. It makes you feel so lonesome and depressed. (81)
When your’e feeling depressed, you can’t even think. (91)
I felt like jumping out the window. I probably would have done it, too, if I’d been sure somebody’d cover me up as soon as I landed. I didn’t want a bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at me when I was all gory. (104)
If I’d have given up on the book early on, I would have done Holden’s character such a disservice.
His younger sister, Phoebe, was a beacon of light throughout the entire novel and a grand definer of his qualities. We have a scene at the end where he sneaks into his parent’s house to visit her. He wakes her up—she is thrilled to see him—and they chat for a while before he asks to borrow some money.
She put the dough in my hand…
“You can take it all. You can pay me back…”
Then all of the sudden, I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I did it so nobody could hear me, bit I did it… I was sitting on the edge of the bed when I did it and she put her old arm around my neck, and I put my arm around her, too, but I still couldn’t stop for a long time. (179)
I thought of something as I read. I work with elders who have Alzheimer’s and dementia, most who have lost their language skills and cannot tell me much about their past. So I often find myself lingering around their photos while in their rooms, the visual memories and art that have been put on display by family members. The stuff that surrounds them becomes a sort of composite sketch of who they were and are.
I felt this with Holden. If taken at face value, he doesn’t come off as much more than a spoiled, girl-crazy teenage boy. But when you gaze at his character through the scenes and statements that were carefully drafted by Salinger, you see that there is so much more going on there. I can imagine Salinger reading aloud to himself over a black coffee or whiskey, nodding in confirmation, as if to say, Yes. That’s just it.
In essence, Holden reminds us of the flawed logic of taking anyone at face value.
There was one heart-wrenching scene after another to remind us that Holden was just a kid, trying to navigate a world that was out of his league. And in some sense, trying to make sense of the things that confounded him, frustrated him, scared him, were not what they seemed.
An event near the end of the book depicted this so well.
Holden was staying the night with his beloved former teacher, Mr. Antolini. This man was one of the chosen few that he talked about with reverence and perhaps even love. As Mr. Antolini was lecturing Holden about his poor choices in life, Holden tried desperately to listen, to respect what he was saying, to not yawn.
He said some beautiful things to Holden that night:
Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful, reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry. (189)
The night took an unexpected and unfortunate turn, though, when Holden found the teacher petting his head while he was sleeping. He gathered his stuff and ran into the night, terrified and confused.
This kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it. (193)
At that point, I felt so protective and maternal towards Holden that I could taste the bitter iron of anger in my mouth long after I stopped reading.
Shortly thereafter, he said this:
That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write, “Fuck You” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery and I have a tombstone and all, It’ll say, “Holden Caulfield on it and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that, it’ll say, “Fuck You.” I’m positive, in fact. (204)
If this last bit was all we got to see of Holden—or of anyone, for that matter—we may not be able to help ourselves from making some very clear judgments about this guy. Perhaps close off a little.
However, if this paragraph were grounded in more context, more information, a more substantial story, we would likely perceive it totally differently.
We may see a bigger picture—open up to so much more of what it is he is trying to say.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant archives