So, I did something this weekend I’ve been thinking about for a couple of decades, and reread The Catcher In The Rye, which I haven’t touched since I was forced to read it in high school. Honestly, the most memorable part of the book for me was Holden’s rant at the end of the book about the kind of people who feel the need to write “Fuck You” on blank surfaces. Other than that, the book was fairly unmemorable for me, but then I was in a conversation where the book came up and a few people said that they hated Holden Caulfield more than any other character in literature.
I didn’t remember hating Holden Caulfield all that much when I read the book. I just remembered thinking that he was kind of an asshole. But I also thought that maybe, just maybe, being the staple that it is, the book deserved a reread from an adult perspective rather than the self-centered teenager that I was when I was forced to read it.
Having read it again from a middle-aged perspective, however, I can now say with confidence that Holden Caulfield is, in fact, still kind of an asshole. He’s pretty emblematic of the kind of asshole that comes from rich, urban families: the kind that has absolutely no inkling of what real need is and is obsessed with criticizing all his peers and family because, (ugh!) his rich brother who writes for Hollywood and the guys at his private prep school keep wanting to do things that they care about for Chrissakes, without realizing how stupid they are.
Of course, Holden is just fine with screwing up what other people want to do — his own school’s fencing team, for example — and his own education by refusing to study for anything, and never once considers that refusing to participate in the games of life that he so despises might be even dumber than participating in them. He merely goes on with his suffocating sense of superiority in having “seen through” everyone else’s phoniness. Of course, there is absolutely no way for anyone to prove to Holden that they aren’t phony (although, to be fair, he doesn’t seem to think everybody is: Holden at least has the virtue of taking innocence seriously) but he rarely thinks that the problem might be him. He thinks he’s pissed off because he is where he is, but he’s really pissed off that he isn’t who he isn’t. Holden never considers that anyone might actually have a reason to be invested in anything that Holden doesn’t personally value. He assumes the worst of everyone but himself all the time, and assumes the worst of himself half the time.
In other words, Holden is the typical teenager, but the “loser” variant: He’s unpopular with his friends because he doesn’t really do anything, won’t pick up on social signals like ending conversations, and talks loudly enough to piss them off — except he always seems to have friend. This, by the way, is where I call bullshit on the novel: any kid who acts the way Holden acts wouldn’t have ANY friends except guys exactly like him, and Holden manages to be hanging out with at least three girls plus a couple of guys over the course of the novel, and everyone always has time for him. This makes Holden a kind of depressing Reverse Gary Stu: he THINKS he’s better than everyone else, while clearly being worse, AND YET people still talk to him. This seems rather clumsy for a writer of Salinger’s stature, but I mean, he’s also got Holden telling us that he breaks his hand punching in car windows while not cutting hell out of the same hand. And he meets a guy who has a Memorial Wing of a private school named after him while he’s still alive, and I’m pretty sure both of those things are bullshit, too.
Now, “loser” teenagers usually straighten up after a couple of hard lessons and progress toward more-or-less functional adulthood at least: there’s no real shame in being one, and Holden, let’s be honest, has had a bit harder a road than most rich kids, having lost a brother to leukemia and a classmate to being (likely raped and) murdered. So I can’t say that I hate him, or even think terribly badly of him: he’s just a kid, acting in the way that a lot of kids do. A slave to his feelings: looking for sex, looking for love, looking for friends, drinking when he can to ease the pain, and pretending he’s a lot older and smarter than he is, judging the people he wants to keep him company.
The question I’m left with is, what the hell makes Holden Caulfield so special? Holden has become this rather-tiresomely-repeated “symbol for teenage rebellion,” that “captures the experience of being a teenager,” butr it’s so mundane that it could be ANYONE. So why this guy? Holden is a literary Kardashian, famous for being famous and having the right friends and money. I can see no more reason to care about Holden than I would care about Stradlater or Sally except for the fact that Salinger chose to shove Holden in our faces.
Moreover, Holden plainly is everything he’s rebelling against, and he’s rebelling mostly by doing nothing in particular except throwing around money and endlessly discussing the most average insights as though they’re profound truths, and trolling those more successful and popular than him and utterly failing to get laid, while bitching about how the people that actually can are bastards. While messing around with this bog, I found a fairly well-written piece that claims that Holden is actually protesting against sexual assault. But the flip side of this is that Holden still wants sex from the same women, he just doesn’t get it because, well, because Holden is a nice guy. Holden’s white-knighting while complaining places him as sort of an eerie incel of the fifties,* who even prefigures the incel-lingo of “Chads” and “Stacies” by referring to people in magazine stories as “Davids,” “Lindas” and “Marcias.”
Look, this kid is about sixteen. I can sympathize with the kid and his pain and frustration, sure. But take him seriously? Who with an ounce of sense would? Holden Caulfield talks like a pothead without the pot. The Deep Philosopher of the School of It Stands To Feel without actually having done the work of reasoning and understanding philosophy. He is, as Wolfgang Pauli is supposed to have remarked about a physics paper, “not even wrong.” He doesn’t have even the beginnings of a framework to make the moral judgments he’s pronouncing.
I really can’t imagine what kind of person could have ever read this book and found it entertaining, let alone profound, except… no wait: this is Maury Povich for pseudointellectuals, isn’t it? It’s so popular in English departments and among English teachers because so many guys in the English dept. ARE Holden Caulfield. And since I have two degrees in English, I think I might have a clue as to what I’m talking about: so many of them are absolutely contemptuous of everyone and everything because they think they have risen above “the common taste.” Only where I read books and dreamed about riding starships and dragons, as far as I can tell, when most of these guys read books, they hoped that one day they would be the guy with all the drugs and the broody sexiness and instant intellectuality, which is just sad. And Holden is simultaneously their model, while failing to be what they want to be. So, yeah, they can aspire to be the better version of him: it’s watching Maury for people who think they’re too good to watch Maury.
The sad part is that Holden is almost offered (though it’s questionable whether he would take) an epiphany by Mr. Antolini, who warns Holden of the danger he is most certainly in: the danger of declaring yourself disillusioned before you were ever illusioned, and of disdaining paying society’s dues because it seems unprofitable and mundane.
But just then Salinger immediately undercuts this by having Mr. Antolini behave in a way that is at least inappropriate toward Holden, and is probably a sexual advance. So where does this leave us? Well, it conveniently leaves Holden as the only remaining moral authority in the book, able to freely disregard Antolini’s actually good advice.
The problem is not Holden the catcher. The problem is that Salinger has made it impossible for Holden, the Catcher in the Rye, to win any game. All the potential victories are poisoned, all the possible goals false. There is no consummation, there is only masturbation: the fruitless and hollow comfort of having been right never to trust and never to try. And I can’t help but think that’s what the goal was all along: for Salinger to propagate despair and pat himself on the back for it. And far too many people have bought into his game.
*And holy shit, how is there discussion of Holden Caulfield being gay? I mean, that takes some world-class projection: he’s punching his roommate for maybe feeling up a girl he likes, hiring whores, and desperately proposing marriage. And this guy is gay? Yeah, in a world where Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas were “just roommates,” maybe.