A Section Man's Experience of
The Catcher in the Rye
by Jim Rovira
Through my reading of J.D. Salinger and about him I've come to the conclusion that Salinger erected his personal philosophy in direct opposition to what is traditionally understood in Western society as rational thought forms. The "enemy" (not really an enemy, but more an object of pity) in his short story "Teddy" are "apple-eaters" (partakers of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of...), Nine Stories opens with a quotation from a Zen koan, and his withdrawal from public life seems to have taken place with no small disdain for professional critics, a disdain seemingly best expressed by the dedication of his last publicly released book -- Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, "If there is an amateur reader still left in the world -- or anybody who just reads and runs -- I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children."
So I've decided to write this paper about Salinger's only published novel with some deference to the author's stated preferences, and write it from the point of view of my personal experience of Salinger's fiction. It's going to be hard for me because I'm a born "apple-eater," perhaps even infected with a good bit of Lewis's mountain apple, the "enemy," one devoted to rational thought and, worst of all, an English major and a former section man at that. But I have two things going for me. First, my reading of Salinger criticism and book reviews has been painfully minimal. I've only read Warren French's J.D. Salinger Revisited, and a review of Hapworth when rumor had it the longish short story may be reprinted in book form. Next (and this is probably the more important factor and the beginning of my experience with Salinger), my introduction to Salinger's fiction was outside the context of an academic setting. I didn't even start out reading The Catcher in the Rye in High School, an American literary teenage rite of passage.
Don't get me wrong. I am still and always will be an apple eater, and small chunks of half chewed apple are bound to splatter the page as I speak. Hopefully, they'll only be small chunks.
Instead, I was introduced to Salinger as, ostensibly, an adult. I was an already accomplished apple eater between the ages of 21 and 25 when a female friend (I think she was in her mid 30s at the time) gave me her copy of Franny and Zooey to read. I read the book, of course, back then I read everything I was given, then filed it under "Literature I've Read and Enjoyed but Haven't Begun to Understand the Significance Of." Not being one to deny myself any teenage rite of passage, even a literary one, I finally got around to reading The Catcher in the Rye sometime around March of 1997. I can't say I hadn't read any of it until that point. I read the opening page in an Expository Writing class at Rollins College probably two years before; the teacher used it for a class exercise. I remember being both put off and intrigued by it; despite Holden's solipsism his unique, honest voice was powerfully effective.
So I didn't get around to reading Catcher until after I graduated college, but when I did I was taken in. Once I passed the fifty page mark I couldn't put the book down. I think I read it in two days; I specifically remember reading it in the waiting room of my Dentist's office. After finishing Catcher I reread Franny and Zooey then quickly finished off the remaining two collections of Salinger's published fiction. By that time I had become an avowed Salingerphile. I subscribed to the J.D. Salinger listserve Bananafish and later started a J.D. Salinger online reading group for AOL. Interest in the reading group faded after we read Catcher and I ended it, but I'm still subscribed to the listserve to this day. Each Internet listserve has an individual personality; of all the listserves I've subscribed to, Bananafish has the most diverse audience but the tightest community; Salinger is a common experience binding the members together in a manner similar to the union between religious devotees.
Before I begin my apple infested approach to Catcher, I need to talk about Franny and Zooey first. Of all Salinger's writing, it had the most direct personal effect on me and has influenced my reading of Salinger's other fiction. Franny, like Holden Caulfield, has problems dealing with "phonies" and "phoniness" to the point that she becomes disturbed emotionally and cut off from society in a self-imposed exile (the temptation to draw parallels to the author's own life here is virtually irresistible). "Phoniness" is a word we'll explore in more detail later, but for now I'll just say it's a word describing people who are inconsiderate, vain, status-oriented, selfish and usually successful intellectually or financially. Franny's perception of the phoniness of the world around her, including her own, as well as the emptiness of her relationships grows to the point where she can't see anything else and can't cope any longer. But her estrangement from herself is her most difficult problem. She's an actress by trade and there, above all else, she's confronted with the vanity and phoniness of the world. So she's given up acting, but can't reconcile herself to her decision. In the end her brother Zooey, calling "in disguise" as their older brother and mentor Buddy, leads her to the realization that in serving the phonies, the banal, and the vain (the fat lady) she is indeed serving her highest ideals, serving Christ.
Right about now I should, if I were going to be not only honest but thorough, describe in some detail Salinger's relationship with, interest in, and study of Eastern religions. A Zen koan was already mentioned, in "Teddy" Vedic beliefs and teachings are referred to with some conviction, and Franny and Zooey seems to very strongly rely on the Bhagavad Gita despite the obvious reference to Matthew 26 at the end. But I don't want to work on this that hard. And I don't know what value it may have for my point. The temptation would be to ask, "Is Salinger simply reiterating the teachings of Eastern religions here or is this Salinger himself?" It would be further tempting to try to comb one influence out from the other as we read Salinger's fiction. But I think that's entirely the wrong route. My guess is that Salinger found something that spoke to an already deeply held value system when he began his study of Eastern religions. So the answer to the "either/or" question presented above would have to be "Yes."
After rereading Franny and Zooey I think I better understand what my friend was trying to communicate to me ten years ago. Parts of Franny's letter to her boyfriend Lane sound like almost verbatim repetitions of statements my wife has made to me in the past about "not analyzing everything, (especially me)" and Franny's disgust with "phoniness" mirrors my own, especially at that stage of my life. Franny and Zooey is a story (are stories) about living with ideals in a world that violates them constantly. More importantly, it's about living with ideals when you're perceptive enough to see how your own life is a violation of what you hold most dear in so many ways. I approached The Catcher in the Rye with this mind set and it has served me well, for many of the themes explored in Franny and Zooey are reflected in Catcher. I'm not going to develop a comparison between the two works beyond just saying that both works seem to be written about frustrated idealists having trouble coping with society. And that the protagonists in both stories withdraw from society as a result. I first saw this character type developed in Franny and Zooey, and noticing it there helped me understand it in Catcher.
I need to start out talking about Catcher in full section man form, however. And that means talking about the "facts" of the book. Not the history of the book, per se; not the controversies and attempts to ban, or the bizarre attraction of the book to at least one pair of well known killers (Mel Gibson's Conspiracy Theory got some good mileage out of this, using this fact as a means of tempting the audience to think like Mel Gibson's character), but the facts as they stand between the covers. Where Holden is and who he is. What he's doing while he's writing the book. What exactly are the events that he's narrating. For the book is consciously written from a standpoint some months after the events described within it. Where is Holden when he's writing, and who is he writing to? The narrative facts are the basis for the narrative's meaning; so, to me, the facts are always the place to start. Beyond that, trusting a commentator to delve beneath the surface of a narrative without understanding the surface is like trusting a mechanic to fix your transmission when he can't figure out where to put in the key. So let's start from the top.
Page one. Opening line. It sounds like the narrative is an answer to a question. What's the question? What is it that "I/he-she-them/you" presumably really wants to hear about? (I'm asking this assuming that the opening line is somehow more than just a rhetorical device used in normal conversation. The thing is, even as a rhetorical device used in normal conversation, it's still a response to a question). Holden assumes a full answer would require an extensive autobiographical account, "all that David Copperfield kind of crap." He decides against giving one for pretty good reasons -- he doesn't feel like it, it's boring, and his parents wouldn't like it. Instead, he decides to tell us "about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy." Since Holden later tells us his brother D.B. lives nearby in Hollywood and visits him "practically every week end," we can safely assume Holden is somewhere in Southern California.
Prior to going out to California, Holden was a student at Pencey Prep School in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. He lives in New York city, and the narrative covers the time Holden spent from his last day at Pencey Prep until he returned to his home in New York. The narrative begins about three in the afternoon the Saturday "of the big game," the last game of the High School football season. Because of a fight with his roommate (and a number of other factors), Holden decides to leave the school late Saturday night, perhaps even very early Sunday morning. He's been kicked out of school for failing four out of five of his subjects (English being the exception), and doesn't want to upset his parents. So since he isn't due home until Wednesday and has some money, he decides to "take a room in a hotel in New York -- some very inexpensive hotel and all -- and just take it easy till Wednesday." Holden doesn't make it to Wednesday. He comes home Monday. The narrative spans Saturday afternoon to Monday afternoon.
The phrase, "had to come out here and take it easy" points to the possibility that Holden is staying in some kind of an institution. More evidence is on page 5, "I'm quite a heavy smoker, for one thing -- that is, I used to be. They made me cut it out." Wherever he is, he's been forced to quit smoking. And then, "That's also how I practically got t.b. and came out here for all these goddam checkups and stuff." So he's been forced to quit smoking and is receiving medical attention wherever he is. Then at the end of the book, "A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keeps asking me if I'm going to apply myself when I go back to school next September." So, he's been forced to quit smoking, he's receiving medical attention, and is being interviewed by a number of people, at least one of them being a psychoanalyst. If I was going to form a hypothesis about the "facts" behind the book, I'd say the book is written in response to a question asked by someone caring for Holden at a Southern California institution (probably some kind of sanitarium), presumably for the sake of his lung problems. "What did you do to yourself, boy?" I considered briefly that Holden may have been writing the account for his brother D.B, but references to him in the third person in chapters 1 and 26 eliminate that possibility for me, especially this line in the first chapter, "I mean that's all I told D.B. about, and he's my brother and all." The book we know as The Catcher in the Rye is, within the context of the novel, Holden's second telling of the events contained within the book, D.B. getting the first telling probably when Holden arrived in California.
How old is Holden? He says in chapter two, "I was sixteen then [during the events being narrated], and I'm seventeen now...". The events of the novel took place after the end of the first semester of his junior year at Pencey Prep, in late December. D.B. is supposed to be taking Holden home "next month maybe," but he's still anticipating going back to school "next September" (chapter 26). So September still sounds a little ways off. It may be that the time Holden would normally have spent in school from January to May or June was spent in an institution in California.
See? I told you I was a section man.
"I don't know what you're even talking about," old Sally said. "You jump from one--" (131).
Who is Holden? I mentioned the honesty of his voice earlier, let me talk about his voice again now. Catcher is a narrative journal written in the first person. Holden tends to talk in loops. He'll start in on a subject that's relevant to the main narrative stream, then a detail will remind him of something else, and he'll talk about that for awhile. He even digresses from his digressions sometimes. But he always returns to the main narrative stream. The word "anyway" opens a paragraph three times in the first chapter and is found in the middle of at least one, each time signifying a return to the main narrative after a digression. What's interesting is that Holden specifically talks about this habit in a positive light during his conversation with Mr. Antolini.
"Oh, I don't know. That digression business got on my nerves. I don't know. The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It's more interesting and all" (183). It's a technique that earned Richard Kinsella a "D+" in Oral Expression, it's a habit that annoyed or scared Sally Hayes, but it's the way Holden thinks and likes to think. What does this habit signify? I think it's a sign that the speaker is doing what he's doing for love, not out of pretense or for formality's sake. "It didn't have much to do with the farm -- I admit it -- but it was nice." Or, more to the point, "What I think is, you're supposed to leave somebody alone if he's at least being interesting and he's getting all excited about something. I like it when somebody gets excited about something." Within the context of an Oral Expression class, this experience would denote the loss of a sense of self and absorption in the subject at hand.
This quality of loss of self in a task is upheld and praised in at least one other vignette in Catcher (and as one person on Bananafish pointed out to me, the novel is episodic in nature). Holden is describing the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall and in his opinion, "The thing Jesus really would've liked would be the guy that plays the kettle drums in the orchestra. . .He only gets a chance to bang them a couple of times during a whole piece, but he never looks bored when he isn't doing it. Then when he does bang them, he does it so nice and sweet, with this nervous expression on his face" (138). Holden -- and the rest of his family, for that matter -- is attracted to the kettle drum player because of the self-effacement he displays by handling a relatively small part with the utmost seriousness. It's a sign of humility and love for the task at hand. If I were going to emphasize one thing in this whole paragraph, though, the emphasis would be on loss of self rather than task at hand. It doesn't matter what "instrument" is used to achieve the loss of self. The goal is what's important.
Understanding what's being positively affirmed (even though this rarely comes through in the novel) makes it easier to understand the nature of the phoniness that is the object of Holden's continuous derision. If loss of self is appealing, the phonies are full of themselves. The word "phony" by itself refers to insincerity, but this insincerity comes from a very specific source. Whether it was Stradlater's vain self-absorption, Mr. Ossenburger's self-satisfied chapel speech, or Lillian Simmons' self-serving social graces Holden was confronted with self everywhere he turned. When Holden saw a person inflating self through pretense and vanity he labeled them a "phony." So it's not just insincerity. It's insincerity springing out of a desire to shore up an empty self, a self whose poverty originates from absorption in the self and a lack of concern for others. A lack of concern, for that matter, not only for other people, but for anything "other," any task, any ideal, any belief.
Holden's other favorite derisive term is "morons." The word "morons" obviously denotes stupidity of some kind, but Holden is concerned with a particular kind of stupidity. Ackley is the model for the moron in Catcher. I don't think the term is directly applied to Ackley at any point in the narrative, but when it is used it seems to be used for characters displaying Ackley-like characteristics. At one point in the narrative Ackley comes into Holden's dorm room, and "instead of sitting on the arm of Stradlater's chair, he laid down on my bed, with his face right on my pillow and all. He started talking in this very monotonous voice, and picking at all his pimples. I dropped about a thousand hints, but I couldn't get rid of him" (37). Ackley earns the honor of being the paradigmatic moron not for his obviously unpleasant characteristics but for his stubborn lack of awareness of the effects of his actions upon others. To put it as bluntly as possibly, Ackley is a moron for not considering that someone else is going to be laying their head upon a pillow he's squeezing his pimples into. He sees only "out from" his own point of view, and is unable to see himself from the point of view of others. He damages others as a result, but not necessarily out of deliberate malice. It's more out of stupid insensitivity. In this case, as with "phonies," the root of the problem lay in the fact that others do not really exist for the failed self.
So a world of morons and phonies is the world Holden inhabits. It's no wonder he has problems, and even less surprise that Phoebe's specific question to Holden was whether or not there was anyone he liked or anything he wanted to do. Holden's answer was that he wanted to "be a catcher in the rye," a sentinel standing guard over children playing in a rye field, presumably to keep them from going over the edge and falling into a phony, moronic adulthood. This isn't too different from Holden's desire to rub all the "Fuck Yous" off every wall in New York. It wasn't just disturbing to him that someone wrote that on the wall (that, particularly, some moron wrote that on the wall). It was disturbing to him that little kids walking through the museum would see it. Yes, Holden does misquote the Burns poem that provided the title of the novel. For that matter, it's the misquote itself that provides the title. But he did it because he heard a child misquoting the poem not long before. If the world were divided neatly between the morons and the sincere, however, Holden may be capable of some kind of simplified integration. He'd simply like very few people and shoot paper clips at everyone who came in to use the copier at the office. But Holden's too deep for that.
To further complicate matters, Holden awareness isn't limited to the unpleasant side of the people around him. Holden's also aware that, on a level deeper than his annoyance, he cares for the people that are making him so miserable. That may be the source of what he calls his "cowardice" throughout the novel, but it comes through consciously and clearly at the end, "About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance." Holden comes closest to self-awareness of his outlook in his meditations on Harris Macklin. He initially sees Harris as one of the millions of guys "that always talk about how many miles they get to a gallon in their goddam cars. . .that get sore and childish as hell if you beat them at golf. . .that are very mean. . .that never read books. . .that are very boring" (123). But then he remembers how great a whistler Harris was, and Holden's concluding thoughts are, "They don't hurt anybody, most of them, and maybe they're secretly all terrific whistlers or something. Who the hell knows? Not me." Holden's thoughts here are a blip of light in a very dark account because he's willing to consider, for just a moment, that the majority of the world's morons and phonies may have depths he cannot fathom, something human that's been suppressed for some reason he cannot see.
As he loses hold of this awareness he moves further and further into isolation and finally wants to completely escape society. Phoebe, his sister, the child, catches him in the end and keeps him from leaving New York in a self-imposed exile and never returning home. Again, Holden is writing this account well after the events being narrated. Since the narrative frame of mind doesn't appear to differ from the frame of mind of the protagonist, Holden's writing the account of Catcher from a point of view not too dissimilar from the one he had in December when the events of the novel took place. It's not enough to observe that the narrator and protagonist are the same person. Similar novels have been written in which the narrator's point of view (or frame of mind) changes due to fact of his or her narrating. C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces is probably the best example I can think of. So I don't think it can be said that Holden has escaped his dilemma. But I think we have been held out some hope. He's started missing everybody. He doesn't want to run away from them anymore.
This paper was supposed to be about "experiencing fiction" and I've written mostly dry analysis. The dry analysis was, in my case, experiencing fiction. I'm an apple eater, remember? And I'm just as aware of the self-satisfied tone at the beginning as you are. It's not that I've made some intelligent observations, it's that I was watching myself make intelligent observations and enjoying it. Just like the Lunts with their acting. Now that I've confronted my phoniness (and if I felt like getting into it I've been a moron plenty of times too) what am I going to do with it? Probably nothing. I am what I am. But if I know what I am maybe I can live with others being who they are. It's not about the world not living up to my expectations, or about myself not living up to my expectations, but it's about living with the failure to live up to my expectations. And it's about finding love and acceptance within the context of that failure.
That usually starts with being willing to give it yourself. If a body meet a body coming through the rye...
Jim Rovira can be reached at JRovira@juno.com
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