100 Best Novels Guardian list, 20th century Literature, American literature, Book review, Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger, 1951

Three things I didn’t notice about ‘Catcher in the Rye’ when I first read it as a teenager:

a) Holden Caulfield, the novel’s 16 year old narrator, is seriously rich. He attends a private boarding school in New Jersey, from which he has just been expelled. His family live in an apartment building close to Central Park which is large enough (the apartment, not the park) for them to have a live-in house-maid. During the 48 hours or so of the novel’s span he spends money like water, on hotels, cabs everywhere, drinks, and a prostitute. How could I have missed this first time round, seeing him as a fairly normal, typicla teenager. I think the simple reason is that we see the events of the novel through Holden’s eyes, and he is not aware of how privileged and prosperous he is – for him, it is normal to be able to afford all these things.

b) Holden hates pretty much everything. Actors. Hotels. Phonys. People who repeat themselves. Inexpensive looking suitcases. People who repeat themselves.

I hate living in New York and all. Taxicabs, and Madison Avenue buses, with the drivers and all always yelling at you to get out at the rear door, and being introduced to phony guys that call the Lunts angels, and going up and down in elevators when you just want to go outside, and guys fitting your pants all the time at Brooks, and people always….” (page 141)

Holden’s anger is random – he snarls at anything that crosses his path, but at exactly the same time tries to befriend anyone he can.

c) Holden is quite obviously clinically depressed. He is unable to sleep, he cries for no particular reason, he is unable to concentrate, and he is full of inarticulate rage against the world. Holden may have become, as described by Wikipedia, as “an icon for teenage rebellion and angst”, but that’s really a case of projection – Holden doesn’t really rebel against anything; he is just extraordinarily lonely and upset. He desperately tries to make connections with anyone who will talk to him, from taxi drivers to Salvation Army nuns, (not that the Salvation Army has nuns) and ten year-olds in the park.

By the end of the novel, Holden is hospitalised. He talks in the introduction about becoming “run-down” and coming “here” without saying explicitly where here is. However, on the final page, he mentions “how I got sick” and “this one psychoanalyst guy they have here”.

So, we have someone who is prosperous and in a loving family, with no material wants. He hates virtually everything he comes across, however trivial or inoffensive they might be. He is depressed. How can that be a simply case of teenage angst, something he will grow out of? For me, rereading ‘Catcher’ it is quite obvious that Holden has not recovered from the death of his brother a few years earlier. It is reasonable to assume that showing grief would have been frowned upon by his Waspish family. There’s no reference to any counselling or other support – instead he is simply sent away to boarding school, separating him from his remaining siblings. He still mourns for his brother, thinks about him a lot, and refers to him in the present tense in his internal monologue, but doesn’t speak about him to anyone, not even his little sister Phoebe.

‘Catcher’ is a novel much loved by teenage readers. Holden seems to speak to them in a way like few other characters in literature. He was, arguably, the first authentic teenager in literature. Coming back to the novel several decades later the authenticity of that voice is lost. In trying to establish whether this reaction was simply personal to me, or something wider, I scrolled through some Amazon (UK) reviews of the novel. One comment from a perceptive reviewer jumped out at me:

Reading it – and To Kill A Mockingbird, which is the only book that regularly beats it in polls – has been a formative influence for generations of American adolescents, to the point at which nostalgia for that time of life may impose a filter between the older reader and any objective assessment. Even so, it’s striking how many find that it can’t be reread later in life with the same admiration.”

That struck a chord – the novel is often read at a point in the life of readers when they can identify with Holden, not because of his wealth, his illness, or his loss, but because he is a teenager angry with the world. As a more mature reader we see the novel’s faults, the absence of any plot and the various implausibilities in terms of Holden’s age, an immature 16 who still gets served in bars and clubs.  We also see Holden as the distressed young man he is rather than a voice of rebellion. It is, of course, one of the strengths of the novel that is can appeal to different types of readers in very different ways.