Sunday, January 31, 2010
In Defense of Holden Caulfield
As you surely know, J.D. Salinger died this past week, and it surely would have annoyed him how much media attention that attracted. A large percentage of the reporting has been of the respectful or laudatory type that we expect when a notable person dies, but to a surprisingly large collection of critics, pundits, and know-it-alls, the death of Salinger, at age 91 and after a decades-long withdrawal from public life, seemed a fine time to trash the man's literary reputation and his "reclusivity" (the definition of a recluse is someone who won't give the media whatever they want; media people don't understand why people don't like answering their questions, because they never have to answer them), mostly through a misreading of the man's most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye. Besides being in bad taste (even at 91, a man's death is still not something to be treated frivolously) this broad, generalizing dismissal of Catcher is something that I feel needs to be addressed. Salinger doesn't need and wouldn't welcome any words I could offer in his defense, but Holden Caulfield might.
I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was 13 years old. I say "first" because I've read the book several times since, although admittedly not recently enough to quote extensively for this little composition. It and Huckleberry Finn are the only books I've ever read more than twice. And yeah, that first time, and maybe even ever other time I read it in my teenage years I had the typical reaction that some critics love to mock or more ridiculously, regard as psychopathic. I though I was Holden Caulfield and everyone one else was "a goddam phony." I thrilled at his adventures and misadventures, and I too wanted to erase all the "fuck yous" carved into park benches and knew there wasn't enough time. I thought of several people I knew who seemed like Stradlater.
(I wondered, at 13, whether those people who were like Stradlater ever read Catcher, and if they did, if they realized they were like him, or if they too cast themselves as Holden. Holden is something of an everyman, despite his seeming alienation.)
I remember the first time I even heard of anyone not liking Catcher. I was honestly surprised. An English teacher told me that when she taught in a largely African-American school, the children there had resented Holden Caulfield. They looked at his wealth, at his advantages (all those fancy prep schools) and they saw that hated figure, the "poor little rich boy" and they disdained him.
This reaction seems prevalent in adult readers of the novel as well, even those who enjoyed the novel in their more vulnerable adolescence. To adults, Holden seems whiny and possibly even dangerously antisocial. They bemoan his refusal to take action or be responsible.
A lot of people's defense of Holden just centers on the fact that he's a teenager, and well, all teenagers are like that, which may be true but feels ineffective as a defense, since it limits the book to teenagers, and limits teenagers to trifles unworthy of serious books. Other people try to defend the book by claiming Holden is clearly insane, and thus mark the book as groundbreaking for being narrated by a psychopath. This also feels inadequate. Too many people around Holden's age feel similarly for me to be entirely comfortable with branding Holden worthy of commitment.
There is one thing I never see in any of the "takedowns" of Holden Caulfield or Catcher as a whole, and I wonder if people are reading the same book that I read. People look at the fact that he's a rich kid who goes to prep school and disqualify him as a potentially interesting figure. The fact that he seems depressed and alienated despite privilege aggravates some people to no end. People seem to think that money makes people happy, despite basically the entirety of human history proving them wrong. Everybody's got problems, whether life gives them to you or you make them for yourself. So to say that Holden should just shape up and get over it is fairly ignorant and decidedly insensitive, even ignoring (which you shouldn't) the fact that HIS LITTLE BROTHER DIES!
Does no one remember this? Do people think all Holden's parents money should excuse him from being sad? Yeah, he's a rich kid, but he's a young boy who's going through a difficult period of life for anyone, and he's doing it while simultaneously trying to come to terms with the death of his beloved brother Allie.
When you remember Allie's death, as so many socioeconomic-obsessed readers don't, The Catcher in the Rye becomes a portrait of a singular person with singular problems. It's not some defense of teenage angst, it's not some polemic condemning the phonies of the world, and it's most certainly not some coded message to assassins. It's a story of a boy who can't handle his brother's death. So get off Holden Caulfield's back. He really doesn't need the stress.