The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger published 1951 was a book I first read in high school in the 1970's and I loved it. But would a rereading hold up after all these years? I was expecting to be let down, actually. But I found to my suprise that it is still a powerful novel deserving of its classic status.
The narrator of The Catcher in the Rye as most of us know is sixteen year old Holden Caulfield. He is probably one of the most famous narrators in literature and at the beginning of the book Holden is staying at a psychiatric facility in California. He is telling his story to a therapist about "the madman stuff that happened around last Christmas" What happened is that Holden was kicked out of his high school, Pencey Prep:
"I wasn't supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all. They gave me frequent warning to start applying myself - especially around mid-terms, when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer -- but I didn't do it. So I got the ax. They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey. It has a very good academic rating, Pencey. It really does".
Holden, knowing his parents are going to be very upset (this isn't the first school he's been kicked out of) decides to delay going home. He books a hotel room in New York. The plan is to stay there a couple of days and then go home after his parents have "thoroughly digested it and all".
And so the novel is a three day odyssey of a young teenager wandering around Manhattan visiting jazz clubs, calling up an old girlfriend, visiting the Natural History Museum, going to the movies, Central Park etc before facing the music with his parents. The book also gives quite a good description of what New York must have been like in the 1940's.
Holden is a sophisticated kid. He is smart but also very judgemental. He can't stand phonies and he sees them everywhere. His classmates are phonies, his teachers, pretty much everyone he encounters and he can be quite funny with his observations. Holden is a very ethical young man. The kind of kid who would come to the aid of a classmate being bullied. He doesn't like to see people being hurt or put down. It drives him crazy.
Holden has misanthropic aspects to his personality but he loves his parents, his older brother, D.B. and his younger sister Phoebe. He likes his old girlfriend Jane Gallagher and there are one or two former teachers he admires. And then there is Holden's younger brother Allie who died from leukemia when Holden was thirteen. Allie is an important part of this novel. At one point Holden is in his hotel room feeling depressed and he starts thinking about Allie:
"What I did , I started talking, sort of out loud, to Allie. I do that some times when I get very depressed ... I keep telling him to go home and get his bike and meet me in front of Bobby Fallon's house. Bobby Fallon used to live quite near us in Maine ... what happened was, one day Bobby and I were going over to Lake Sedebego on our bikes ,,, Allie heard us talking about it, and he wanted to go, and I wouldn't let him. I told him he was a child. So once in a while, now, when I get very depressed, I keep saying to him, "Okay. Go home and get your bike and meet me In front of Bobby's house" ... I keep thinking about it anyway, when I get very depressed".
That passage got to me. It's about regret and maybe that's why The Catcher in the Rye is a novel we gravitate to when we are teenagers because Holden's exasperation with the phonies is easier to identify with when we are young. As we get older it's not so easy to judge others since we have too much we would like to change if we could go back.
Also when I read The Catcher in The Rye in the early 1970's it was kind of thrilling since high school is an anxious time and Holden is a young man who is failing four subjects and could care less. It was liberating in the same way Jack Kerouac's books filled with characters on the edge can be liberating. But back then you could still drop out for a time to find yourself. I don't t think that's true anymore which is why teenagers today from what I've heard are not as likely to identify with Holden's reckless behavior.
And yet it would be a mistake for young people to dismiss The Catcher in the Rye as a dated novel from the baby boom generation. J. D. Salinger was not a baby boomer. He started writing The Catcher in The Rye in the 1930's and in 1942 was drafted into World War II. He was part of the Normandy invasion. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was among the first soldiers to liberate the concentration camps at Dachau. He fought bravely and rose to the level of army-sargeant. Right after the war he was hospitalized for PTSD and his experiences and the horrors he saw never left him. Salinger also carried his notes for The Catcher in the Rye with him all through the war.
Knowing this gives one a different perspective on Holden Caulfield. His bitter view of humanity and his dream of living by himself in a cabin out west away from civilization doesn't sound so naive based on what the author saw. Nor does Holden's fantasy in which there are thousands of kids in a field of rye and his job is to catch them before they fall over the cliff (enter adulthood) sound so strange when you consider the author's wartime experience.
I chose The Catcher in the Rye for the 2021 Back to the Classics Category- choose a humor or satiric classic. I did so because Holden is very funny in a sarcastic sort of way. But make no mistake this is also a serious novel and I am glad I reread it.