|"Holden Caulfield and American Protest"
Critic: Joyce Rowe
Source: New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye, Cambridge University Press,
1991, pp. 77-95.
Criticism about: J. D. Salinger (1919-), also known as: J(erome) D(avid)
Salinger, Jerome David Salinger
[(essay date 1991) In the following essay, Rowe examines Holden's quest
for authenticity and meaning in The Catcher in the Rye, drawing attention
to the novel's portrayal of rebellion and alienation in postwar American
society and its thematic antecedents in American literature.]
On a gray winter afternoon Holden Caulfield, frozen to the quick by more
than icy weather, crosses a country road and feels he is disappearing.
This image of a bleak moral climate which destroys the soul is not only
the keynote of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye but of much that
now seems representative of the general tone of American cultural commentary
in the aftermath of World War Two, when the novel was conceived. By 1951
(the year of Catcher's publication) the ambiguities of the cold war, of
American global power and influence, were stimulating a large popular audience
to find new relevance in well-worn images of disaffection from the modern
world. These, which historically had been identified with an aesthetic
or intellectual elite, were increasingly being adapted to popular taste
as they bore on current social and political concerns. The impact of David
Riesman's classic sociological study, The Lonely Crowd, published one year
before Catcher, may have paved the way for a new public concern with the
disturbing subject of American character; but the immediate interest Riesman'
s book aroused and its relatively large sale suggest a readership already
sensitized to the kind of anomie which Riesman described and from which
Holden Caulfield suffers.1
In a sense, Salinger's novel functions at a crossroads, a point on an
aesthetic and spiritual journey that he was soon to leave behind.2 Not
unlike the author of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, whom he is all
too anxious to mock, Salinger created a work that is rich enough in language,
reference, and scene to captivate innocent and sophisticated readers alike.
Indeed, it is only through the democratic nature of his audience that Salinger
achieves any version of that ideal community of sensibility and response
whose essential absence determines Holden's resistance to the world as
Putting aside the many pleasures of authorial wit, narrative skill, and
aesthetic energy that are the first fruits of a reading of Catcher, I want
to concentrate on a perspective which, thus far, has not received any real
critical scrutiny. This is Salinger's ability to infuse a rather formulaic
disaffection not merely with the tormented urgency of an individual adolescent
voice, but with a resonance that suggests much about the contemporary state
of traditional American ideals and aspirations. Holden's brand of alienation
gains in significance when viewed not only laterally, in relation to contemporary
styles of resistance (as many critics have already done), but historically,
in its relation to and displacement of cultural themes which had preoccupied
many earlier American writers.4 To trace such a pattern is, I hope, to
deepen our sensitivity to the role that literature plays in shaping the
social and moral options that define identity in an historical culture.
Like earlier social resisters in American literature, Holden holds to
his own vision of authenticity in the teeth of a morally degraded society.
Unlike his forebears, however, he has little faith in either nature or
the power of his dreams to compensate for what his "own environment [cannot]
supply."5 The "perfect exhilaration" that Emerson once felt, crossing the
snow puddles of Concord Common at twilight, has been transmuted in Holden'
s urban, modern consciousness to a puzzled speculation: periodically he
"wonders" where the ducks in Central Park go in winter when the lagoon
in which they live freezes over.6 The contrast of freezing and freedom,
a keynote of Salinger's style, reminds us that the spiritual freedom traditionally
symbolized by migratory birds is the remotest of possibilities for Holden.
From beginning to end of his journey, from school to sanitarium, Holden'
s voice, alternating between obscenity and delicacy, conveys his rage at
the inability of his contemporaries to transcend the corrosive materialism
of modern American life. Many critics have berated him for being a rebel
without a cause, asking, in Maxwell Geismar's words, "But what does he
argue for?"7 But this inability to move forward and assert a positive goal
would seem to be precisely the point of his character.
As a precocious but socially impotent upper-middle-class adolescent who
is entirely dependent upon institutions that have failed him, Holden has
none of the resources--spiritual, economic, or vocational--that might enable
him to become Thoreau's "majority of one." In Thoreau's claim that each
of us can become a sovereign unit if we act according to the dictates of
conscience, we have a classic American "Antinomian" statement, in which
the highest form of individualism, of true self-reliance, is to become,
paradoxically, an image of the community's best self. Walden opens with
"Economy," an account of Thoreau's expenditures for building his house,
and ends with a vision of spiritual regeneration spreading through the
land. In this conception, to rebuild the self is to regenerate the community.
Thoreau's Antinomianism is thus not merely a private or eccentric choice
but one that manages to fuse all elements of experience--aesthetic, spiritual,
social, national--into a unified endeavor. All need not go to the woods,
but all must live as if they had discovered Walden Pond within themselves.
Although Holden, lacking faith in the power of self-regeneration, is no
Thoreau, neither is his dilatory rebellion merely the measure of his own
eccentricity. It too symbolizes a pervasive social failure. Like Pencey
Prep, an elite boarding school full of crooks, materialist America desecrates
and debases whatever falls to its care. A society that had once expressed
its redemptive hopes in symbols of great moral or millennial power--Winthrop'
s City on the Hill, Melville's Pequod going down with a "living part of
heaven" nailed to its mast--now finds its goals in the platitudes of "adjustment"
psychology and the regenerative therapeutic of the sanitarium. What, indeed,
is it for?
In Holden's postwar lexicon, America and the world are interchangeable
terms. And American global hegemony is given its due in the "Fuck you"
expletives which Holden sees as an ineluctable blight spreading through
space and time--from the walls of his sister's school, to the tomb of the
Egyptian mummies at the Metropolitan Museum, to his own future gravestone.
("If you had a million years ... you couldn't rub out even half the "Fuck
you" signs in the world.") Like Scott Fitzgerald, Salinger envisions American
society as a kind of gigantic Midas, frozen at the heart and thus unable
to mature. For all its wealth, its members cannot generate enough respect
for their own humanity to care either for their past or their future.
But while Holden lacks the moral energy to make resistance signify as
an individual action, he shares with his classic forebears (Hester Prynne,
Ishmael, Jay Gatsby) an unwillingness to recognize the ambiguous truths
of his own nature and his own needs.8 This lack of self-awareness characteristic
of American heroes, this refusal to probe the tangled underbrush where
psychological and social claims intertwine, leads to a familiar pattern:
a sense of self-versus-world, an awareness so preoccupied with a lost ideal
that any real social engagement is evaded. Thus, paradoxically, rebellion
only reinforces the status quo.
Holden's evasion is embodied in a strategy familiar to those who recognize
that when Huck Finn lights out for "the Territory" he is making a bid for
a hopeless hope--freedom from human contingency; and that when Nick Carraway
returns to the West he is following the same path to an unrepeatable past
that he has consciously rejected in the pattern of Gatsby's life. Like
these dreamers, Holden too is committed to a hopeless vision that makes
all the more acute his disgust with the actual. But, in comparison to his
forebears, Holden's ideal is a far more diminished thing. It lies in a
sunlit childhood Eden, dominated by the image of his dead brother, Allie,
who stands for whatever is most authentic in Holden's inner life. Unlike
Gatsby, who sacrifices himself to his passion for the past, Holden cannot
deceive himself: there is no resurrecting the past, because Allie is dead.
This hard fact reduces what was in Gatsby a buoyant, if misguided, hope,
to a barren and ineffectual nostalgia. As a mordant comment on American
dreamers, it is the last twist of the knife.
Allie's death occurred when Holden was thirteen, the age when puberty
begins. On Allie's side of the border it is still childhood, a time when
self and world seem, at least in memory, to exist in an enchanted unity.
The painful rupture of this sense of self-completion by adolescent self-consciousness
and self-doubt is figured in Holden's ritual smashing of the garage window
panes at the news of Allie's death. The fact that Holden breaks his own
hand in the act--a kind of punitive self-sacrifice--only underscores its
symbolic relation to the greater self-mutilation which the loss of childhood
signifies for him. The psychic wilderness into which he falls leaves him
in a state of continuous nervous anxiety--of being and belonging nowhere,
of acute vulnerability to the aggressions and depredations of others against
his now-diminished sense of self. But this anxiety never catalyzes any
recognition of the enormity of his needs, or of the inevitable limitations
of his character. By the end of the story Holden does realize that his
vision of himself as catcher was only a daydream. He cannot save either
himself or those he loves. ("The thing with kids is, ... If they fall off,
they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them.") But this hard-won
insight--sustained through his feeling for his little sister Phoebe--is
as close as Holden ever comes to establishing any reciprocity with others,
or any awareness of the imperatives that operate in their lives.
The notion of the fall into experience as spiritual castration or social
betrayal--the dark legacy of romanticism--has had particular importance
for those American artists who have viewed American experience from the
vantage point of the country's historic ideals. Of course, among those
writers we term "classic" there are distinctions to be made. In "The May-Pole
of Merry Mount" Hawthorne allegorized adulthood in terms of the marriage
ritual, whereby a man and a woman, brought to moral consciousness through
their feeling for one another, sublimate the primitive passions of childhood
in the social responsibilities of communal life.9 But Hawthorne's view
of the potential for human happiness in adult life (which becomes his own
form of idealism) is something of an exception to the more common, albeit
complex, ambivalence of nineteenth-century American writers toward the
value of what Wordsworth called "the still sad music of humanity"--a melody
which can be heard only by those who relinquished their longing for the
intuitive glories of childhood.
Indeed, as the century wears on and industrial society assumes its characteristic
modern shape, the American sense of despair at and revulsion from the norms
of adult life seems to increase. Writers as diverse in sensibility, experience,
and social orientation as Dreiser, Wharton, and Hemingway have created,
in Sister Carrie, The House of Mirth, and The Sun Also Rises, works that
are remarkably congruent in their protagonists' ultimate response to their
world. Hurstwood, disintegrating under the pressure of his confused longings,
can find solace only in the rhythmic motion of his rocking chair pulled
close to the warmth of the radiator. Similarly, Lily Bart, overcome by
her tortuous social battles, seeks a lost primal warmth by imagining herself
cradling a baby in her arms as she relapses into a final narcoticized sleep;
and Jake Barnes, made impotent by the war, is unable to imagine a way out
of that no-man's-land of lost souls whose wayward pleasures postpone forever
the psychosexual dilemmas of adult life. In one form or another, the regression
to childhood serves as an "over-determined" response to the limitations
of social and individual reality confronting these protagonists. So Holden,
praying to the image of his dead brother, fights to hold onto what he fears
most to have lost, struggling through a barren present peopled by Stradlaters
and Ackleys--"slobs" secret or pathetically overt; moral ciphers who exploit
by arrogance or by whining manipulation. The bathos of American society
turns out to be the real illness from which Holden suffers. In the degree
to which we respond to his voice, to the bid his apostrophes make for our
allegiance, his condition of loneliness and longing becomes a mirror of
our own predicament.
What Holden shares with, indeed inherits from, such classic American prototypes
as the new man of Emerson's essays, the narrator of Walden, or of "Song
of Myself," or of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is both a way of perceiving
reality--a "horizon of expectations," in the words of E. H. Gombrich--and
a way of speaking that enforces this view on the reader/auditor by discrediting
or delimiting all potentially competing voices.10 Both his overt aggression
and his more subtle hostility toward others are regularly redeemed by the
vitality of his compassion, intelligence, and wit. The reader, like one
of Holden's loyal though exasperated teachers, is continually persuaded
to acknowledge Holden's innate superiority to those around him. All his
conflicts seem designed to reinforce this persuasion, to bind the reader
closer to him. The startling intimacy of his address, beginning with "If
you really want to hear about it," but quickly becoming "You should have
been there," "You would have liked it," flatters the reader by implying
that he or she shares in Holden's delicacies of feeling and taste. In effect,
the reader fills the space that Allie's death leaves vacant, his silent
allegiance the token of an ideal communion in which Holden might find his
authenticity confirmed. Indeed, Holden's idiosyncratic friendship with
the reader compensates proleptically for the final loss he suffers in freeing
his sister from her sacrificial loyalty to him. But such an "ideal communion,"
demanding nothing less than the absolute acceptance and mutual joy of his
lost relations with Phoebe and Allie, leads to a profound distortion of
the reciprocal norm implied in the term. By trying to convert us to his
way of seeing and feeling--incorporating us, as it were, into his consciousness
while distancing himself from others--Holden unconsciously makes clear
that such a bond could never be the basis for the dialogic tensions, sympathies,
and re-visions upon which real community depends.
Although Holden's consciousness, like that of all first-person narrators,
is the lens through which we view his world, it does not follow that the
perspective which the reader shares with the narrator must be as restricted
as it is here. Not that Holden is so thoroughly reliable that we cannot
see his own confusions and pretensions; there are obvious discrepancies
between what he says about himself and the truth of his situation and feelings.
His boarding school precocity masks a vulnerability to social humiliation;
his pride in his looks and intelligence does little to assuage his guilty
fascination with and fear of female sexuality; and his displaced aggression
only underscores his doubts about his own sexual potency. But these effects
are all too obvious. They exist not for the sake of challenging or complicating
our empathy with Holden, but of reinforcing it by humanizing him with the
same falsities and fears, the same ambiguous mix of "crumby" and decent
impulses, that we can accept in ourselves. They make us like him better,
believe in his innate decency as we wish to believe in our own, and so
encourage us to accept his view of experience as an adequate response to
the world. Indeed Holden, "confused, frightened and ... sickened" by the
behavior of others, flatters the reader's sense of his own moral acumen;
it is all too easy to accept Holden as an exemplar of decency in an indecent
Although Holden claims that in telling his tale he has come to "miss"
Ackley, Maurice, and the others, his presentation of these figures hardly
suggests a deep engagement with the substance of their lives. Like Thoreau'
s Walden neighbors, whose prodigal habits are introduced only to reinforce
the superiority of the narrator's "economy," the characters that Holden
meets have little depth apart from their function as specimens of a depressingly
antithetical world. If one cares about the three female tourists from Seattle
with whom Holden tries to dance, it must be for the sake of one's own humanity,
not theirs. They are like flies on the wall of Holden's consciousness--their
own histories or motivations need not trouble us. Thus Holden's plunge
into the urban muddle, while it seems to provide images of the social complexity
of modern America, turns out to be a curiously homogeneous affair: each
class or type merely serves as another reflection of a predetermined mental
scheme. In this hall of mirrors the apparent multiplicity of experience
turns out to be largely a replication of the same experience, in which
those who act out of purpose, conviction, or faith are heartbreakingly
In place of authenticity Holden finds an endless appetite for the glamour
of appearance, for the vanity of effect and approval. The story that he
writes for Stradlater about the poems on Allie's baseball mitt is rejected
by his "unscrupulous" roommate because it doesn't follow the rules of the
English composition assignment: "'You don't do one damn thing the way you'
re supposed to,'" says the infuriated Stradlater. "'Not one damn thing.'
" Holden, of course, resists the rules in order to explore his own nascent
artistic integrity, while around him those with more claim to our respect
than the obtuse Stradlater betray talent and spirit alike by modeling themselves
on one another and conforming their behavior to the regulations of a standardized
Ernie, the talented "colored" piano player who runs his own New York nightclub,
is a case in point. He has learned to capture the attention of his customers
by performing before a spotlighted mirror. His face, not his fingers, as
Holden points out, is the focus of his style. Once very good, he now parodies
himself and packs in the customers who, themselves anxiously performing
for one another, applaud Ernie wildly. "I don't even think he knows any
more when he's playing right or not," Holden says. Holden's sense of artistry
thus serves as a measure of all false values. To the degree that we endorse
his authenticity we, who would "puke" along with him, are enabled to share
Because there is no other character in the book to provide serious commentary
on, or resistance to, Holden's point of view, his experience lacks the
kind of dialectical opposition, or reciprocal sympathy, through which he,
and we, might develop a more complex sense of the imperatives of American
social reality. As he says about the abortive attempt of Mr. Spencer to
focus his attention on his failed history exam: "I felt sorry as hell for
him. ... But I just couldn't hang around there any longer, the way we were
on opposite sides of the pole. ..." It is this need to polarize and abstract
all personal relations that defeats any possibility of normative social
connection and engagement. Though Holden complains that people "never give
your message to anybody," that "people never notice anything," it is his
dominating consciousness, setting himself and the reader in a world apart,
that insures his isolation.
Holden's continuous need to defend himself from the encroachments of others
generates the verbal disguise he uses to fictionalize all his encounters
with adults. The games he plays with Mr. Spencer and Mrs. Morrow, "shooting
the bull," telling each what he thinks will most interest and please, enable
him to distance himself from the false self his false phrases create as
he attempts to protect the true core of his being. As the psychoanalyst
D. W. Winnicott has described it, "the true self" is a core of identity
which is always invulnerable to external reality and never communicates
with it. In adolescence, "That which is truly personal and which feels
real must be defended at all cost." Winnicott's description of what violation
of its integrity means to the true self--"Rape and being eaten by cannibals
... are mere bagatelles" by comparison--brings to mind the emotional horror
that Hawthorne displays toward the violation of another's deepest self,
which he calls the Unpardonable Sin.11 This sense of an integrity to be
defended at all cost shapes the Antinomianism, as it does the duality,
of Hester Prynne, Huck Finn, and Melville's most notable protagonists.
But unlike these forebears, whose need for self-protection is clearly denoted
by their double lives, Holden has very little inner or secret freedom in
which to function. If society is a prison, then, as in a nightmare tale
of Poe, the walls have moved inward, grazing the captive's skin.
Seen in this light, Holden's constant resort to obscenity serves as a
shield, a perverse rite of purification that protects him from the meretricious
speech of others, which threatens his very existence. Language, for Holden,
is a moral matter. In the tradition of Puritan plain-speech, which has
had such a marked influence on American prose style, the authenticity of
the word derives from, as it points toward, the authenticity of the mind
and heart of the speaker. But unlike the narrators of Walden and "Song
of Myself," who give voice to a language fully commensurate with their
visionary longings, Holden's imprecations and expletives ultimately serve
to define his impotence; they reveal the degree to which he is already
contaminated by the manners, institutions, and authorities of his society.
The inadequacy of his vocabulary, upon which he himself remarks ("I have
a lousy vocabulary") is a reflection not merely of his adolescent immaturity,
but of the more abiding impoverishment from which he as a representative
hero suffers--the inability to conceptualize any form of social reciprocity,
of a reasonably humane community, in which the "true self" might feel respected
and therefore safe. Lacking such faith there is finally nothing that Holden
can win the reader to but complicity in disaffection.12
It is a literary commonplace that the English novel--from Austen, Dickens,
and Conrad to writers of our own day, like Iris Murdoch--has regularly
focused its critical energies on the interrelation of social institutions
and individual character. In the work of English and European writers generally,
society is the ground of human experience. Although many English protagonists
enter their stories as orphans, their narratives lead toward a kind of
self-recognition or social accommodation to others that represents the
evolving meaning of their experience. One grows, develops, changes through
interactions with others in a web of social and personal forces which is
simply life itself.
But classic American heroes never make such accommodations. Their identities
are shaped, not by interaction with others but in resistance to whatever
is, in the name of a higher social, ethical, or aesthetic ideal. This,
as I have noted, is the ground of their Antinomianism--a public or exemplary
heroism, designed to be the only morally respectable position in the narrative.
Orphanhood has functioned quite differently for American heroes than for
European. More than a starting point from which the hero must evolve a
social and moral identity, it represents a liberation from the past that
is a totalizing condition of existence--spiritual, psychological, political,
and metaphysical. American heroes, seemingly alone, free, and without family
or history, test the proposition that a new world might bring a new self
and society into being. Although in each case the hero's or heroine's effort
issues in failure, there is no conventional recognition of this experiential
truth on the part of the protagonist, no willingness to recalculate his
or her relations to society or history. American individualism thus reshapes
the archetypal pattern of the orphaned young man (or woman) seeking an
adult identity by coming to terms with him or herself in the matrix of
Indeed, the family, as the basis for individual as well as social identity,
hardly exists in classic nineteenth-century American literature. Almost
invariably American heroes lack the memory of past roots. Hawthorne's The
Scarlet Letter is perhaps the proof text for this statement. Hester Prynne,
having shed her European past, stands before the Puritan community, her
infant in her arms, unwilling to identify the father--a revelation that
would establish a new family (in Hester's ideal terms) on these shores.
The fact that Pearl returns to Europe at the story's end, that Dimmesdale
tortures himself to death rather than acknowledge his paternity, and that
Hester herself remains alone, dreaming of the New World community yet to
be, suggests how thoroughly discouraged this most "social" of our classic
novelists was about the prospects for authentic family relations in American
American heroes like Ishmael and Gatsby are fatherless by choice as well
as circumstance. Ishmael will continue to wander as he searches for his
lost homeland; Gatsby reaches toward an impossible transcendence whose
measure lies precisely in its ineffable difference from the world he knows.
Thus Holden's initial dismissal of family history as "all that David Copperfield
kind of crap" suggests his affinity with the traditional American rejection
of the kind of bildungsroman which David Copperfield, among other Dickens
novels, exemplifies. But while Holden fully shares, on the deepest spiritual
level, in the isolation of the traditional American hero, nothing enforces
our sense of his impotence more than his ineffectual play at orphanhood
in an urban wilderness. Enmeshed as he is in a labyrinth of social roles
and family expectations, escape--to a sunny cabin near, but not in the
woods--is envisaged in terms of a cliché whose eerie precision illuminates
the core of desperation that sustains the image. Salinger's hero is wedded
to a pattern of thought and aspiration in which he can no longer seriously
believe. He invokes it because it is the only from of self-affirmation
his culture affords.
If the old dream of regeneration through separation has become both terrifying
and foolish, society remains for Holden what it has always been for American
heroes--an anti-community which continues to betray its own high birthright
for a mess of commercial pottage. Holden's fear of disappearing--an image
which joins the beginning and end of the story--as he crosses from one
side of the road or street to the other, aptly expresses his sense of the
diminishing ground for authenticity in America. The peculiar sense of a
materialism so blanketing that it produces a pervasive deadening of affect
becomes the mark of the age. One thinks of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar,
whose heroine finds a correlative to the terror of inner emptiness in the
social sterility of Madison Avenue glamour--just that world which Holden
imagines himself as headed for. Books such as The Man in the Grey Flannel
Suit and Sincerely, Willis Wayde, written to attract a large popular audience,
turn these perceptions into the simplified, world-weary clichés
of growing up and selling out.13 But whether cynical or sincere, the protagonists
of these novels share with Holden an inability to conceptualize the future
as anything but a dead end. "It didn't seem like anything was coming,"
says Holden, conveying the sense of a world that seems to annihilate the
possibility of growth.
Trying to imagine himself a lawyer like his father, Holden wonders if
his father knows why he does what he does. Holden knows that lawyers who
rake in the cash don't go around saving the innocent. But even if you were
such an idealistic fellow, "how would you know if you did it because you
really wanted to save guys' lives, or because what you really wanted to
do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and
congratulating you in court. ..." In a society as replete with verbal falsities
as this one, how do you trust your own words, your own thoughts? How do
you know when you are telling yourself the truth?
Dickens's tales also show adolescence in an urban commercial society to
be a dislocating and frightening process. But from Nicholas Nickleby through
Great Expectations there is regularly a kindly, decent figure who provides
aid, comfort, and tutelage in time of need. However bad the adult world
seems, enough sources of social strength remain to make the protagonist'
s struggle toward maturity worthwhile. But Holden never finds such an adult.
Mr. Spencer, the history teacher who seems to take a fatherly interest
in him, is actually most interested in shaming and humiliating him. D.
B., the older brother he admires, is as emotionally remote from him as
is his father, and Holden takes revenge by reviling him for "selling out"
to Hollywood. His mother, as he repeatedly notes, is too nervous and anxious
herself to do more than pay perfunctory attention to her children's needs.
His father is a shadowy abstraction--a corporate lawyer, defined by his
preoccupations and vexations. We hear from Phoebe that "Daddy's going to
kill you," rather than experience the father directly through any memory
Holden's anxiety, then, is of a specifically contemporary kind. Those
adults who should serve as moral tutors and nurturers are neither wholly
absent nor fully present. Perhaps, as David Riesman puts it in speaking
of middle-class American parents, "they are passing on to him their own
contagious, highly diffuse anxiety," as they look to others to define values
and goals increasingly based upon socially approved ephemera.14 Yet, however
shadowy these adult figures may be, they are as controlling of Holden as
is the impersonal, elusive corporate authority which, he knows, ultimately
determines the values of his home. Like the corporate structure itself,
these adults are profoundly ambiguous figures whose seeming beneficence
it is dangerous to trust. All are effectively epitomized in the teacher
Mr. Antolini, whose paternal decency may be entwined with a predator's
taste for young boys, and whose advice to Holden turns out to be as puzzling,
if not as specious, as his midnight hospitality.
Remarking that Holden is a natural student, Mr. Antolini urges education
on him for its efficiency: "After a while, you'll have an idea what kind
of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing,
it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that ...
aren't becoming to you. You'll begin to know your true measurements and
dress your mind accordingly." Mr. Antolini's words, like his manners, are
glibly seductive, and a trifle coarse. Ideas as garments that one slips
on for the fit--a ready-made identity--is a concept not far removed from
the kind of stylized performance that Holden detects in the Lunts ("they
were too good") and Ernie. It is suited to a society that increasingly
emphasizes image and appearance as intrinsically valuable; a society in
which the mess and pain of a real struggle with ideas and feelings is considered
an unwelcome deviation from the approved norm of "personality."
Because Holden's final return to his family, his "going home," is never
dramatized, we are deprived of the experience of a reckoning in which some
genuine moral insight, in distinction to Mr. Antolini's sartorial version
in the quest for knowledge, might occur. Instead, we are left with the
sense of a society that Holden can neither accept nor escape. His encounter
has only served to increase his sense of himself as a creature at bay.
His anxiety is never allayed.
Because Holden is never allowed to imagine or experience himself in any
significant struggle with others (his bloody fistfight with Stradlater
emphasizes the futility of any gesture that is open to him), neither he
(nor his creator) can conceive of society as a source of growth, or self-knowledge.
In place of a dialectical engagement with others, Holden clings to the
kind of inner resistance that keeps exiles and isolates alive. In response
to the pressures for "adjustment" which his sanitarium psychiatrists impose,
he insists upon the principle that spontaneity and life depend upon "not
knowing what you're going to do until you do it." If the cost of this shard
of freedom is the continuing anxiety which alienation and disaffection
bring--of life in a permanent wilderness, so to speak--so be it. Impoverished
it may be, but in Holden's sense of "freedom" one can already see foreshadowed
the celebrated road imagery of the Beats.
Holden's struggle for a moral purity that the actual corruptions and compromises
of American society, or indeed any society, belie is a familiar one to
readers of classic American works. But as I have already suggested, for
Holden the terms of that struggle are reversed. Unlike nineteenth-century
characters, Holden is not an obvious social outsider or outcast to those
he lives among. Well-born and well-favored, his appearance, abilities,
and manners make him an insider--he belongs. And yet, as the heir of all
the ages, blessed with the material splendors of the Promised Land, Holden
feels more victim or prisoner than favored son. Like the country at large,
he expresses his discomfort, his sense of dis-ease, by squandering his
resources--physical, emotional, intellectual--without attempting to utilize
them for action and change. But the willful futility of his acts should
not blind us to the psychic truth which they reveal. Ultimately Holden
is performing a kind of self-mutilation against that part of himself which
is hostage to the society that has shaped him. Moreover, while previous
American heroes like Hester Prynne and Huck Finn evaded social reality
at the cost of denying their human need for others and their likeness to
them, Holden's resistance concludes on a wistful note of longing for everybody
outside the prison of his sanitarium--an ambivalence that aptly fixes the
contemporary terms of his predicament.
Holden's self-division is thus reduced to the only form in which his society
can bear to consider it--a psychological problem of acceptance and adjustment;
yet Salinger's irony results in a curious double focus. The increasing
prestige of American psychoanalysis in the 1950s may be attributed to its
tendency (at least in the hands of some practitioners) to sever individual
issues and conflicts from their connections to more obdurate realities
in the social world. There is familiar comfort in the belief that all problems
are ultimately individual ones which can, at least potentially, be resolved
by force of the individual mind and will. This irony surely lies within
the compass of Salinger's story.15 But its effect is undercut by the polarized
perspective that Salinger has imposed on his hero. As we have seen, the
stoic isolation through which Holden continues to protect his authenticity
is itself an ethic that devalues confrontation or action and so fixes human
possibility in the mold of a hopeless hope. Indeed, it becomes a strategy
for containment, as much an evasion of social reality as is the psychiatric
imperative to adjust.
There is nothing finally in Holden's diffuse sympathies to offend or dismay
the reader, nothing to keep him permanently on edge. By the end of the
story the reader has seen his familiar social world questioned, shaken,
only to be reconstituted as an inevitable fate.16 Having been drawn to
Holden's side we are finally drawn to his mode of perception and defense.
To keep the citadel of the self intact by keeping others at a distance
is the kind of social agreement that guarantees that the longed-for community
which American experience forever promises will surely forever be withheld.
In discussing the romantic novelist in nineteenth-century European literature,
René Girard remarks that the romantic establishes a Manichean division
of self and other, refusing to see how "Self is implicated in Other." But
since Gerard's concern is as much with the author as with the characters,
he goes on to note that this situation is finally attributable to the novelist
who stands behind the character and refuses to free either himself or his
character from these limitations. In distinction, a "classic" novelist,
such as Cervantes, transcends this opposition by distancing himself from
his character and so frees himself from the character's perspective. Some
form of reconciliation is then possible between protagonist and world.17
In Girard's terms, Salinger never frees himself, or therefore the reader,
from the grip of Holden's perspective. What happens is just the reverse.
We are initiated into a process of seeing in which we are either on the
side of integrity and autonomy (Holden) or on the side of the predators
and exploiters--from Maurice the pimp to the anonymous psychoanalyst who
wants Holden to promise to "apply" himself. A Manichean choice indeed.
For the reader, this duality preempts all other modes of perception. The
corrosive materialism that blasts Holden as it does his world finally becomes
irrelevant to any particular historical moment or reality. Instead, isolation,
anxiety, the modern sickness of soul turns out to be the given, irremediable
condition of our lives.
1David Riesman, with Reuel Denny and Nathan Glazer, The Lonely Crowd:
A Study of the Changing American Character (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1950). By 1967 the book was in its thirteenth printing. An abridged
version (New York: Doubleday, Anchor Press, 1955) has been widely available
ever since, though I have not been able to obtain exact sales figures.
Riesman derives the term anomie from the French sociologist Emile Durkheim'
s anomique, "meaning ruleless, ungoverned." But Riesman uses it in a broader
sense than did Durkheim. For Riesman, anomic individuals are out in the
cold, caught between the more desirable state of "autonomy" and the blind
conformity of the "adjusted" (abridged ed., p. 278). For another perspective
on the mass cultural anxieties which can be figured in Riesman's term,
see Michael Wood's comments on the imagery of film noir in America at the
Movies (New York: Basic Books, 1975).
2For a consideration of the sacramental vision of experience, tentatively
broached here, but confidently asserted in the later stories, especially
"Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and "Zooey," see Ihab Hassan, "Almost
the Voice of Silence: The Later Novellettes of J. D. Salinger," Wisconsin
Studies in Contemporary Literature 4, no. 1 (Winter 1963).
3In 1965 Catcher was listed as one of ten leading mass-market paperback
bestsellers. In 1967 it was one of "the leading twenty-five bestsellers
since 1895" (Facts on File, quoted in Jack R. Sublette, J. D. Salinger:
An Annotated Bibliography, 1938-1981 [New York: Garland Publishing Co.,
1984], p. 132). It has not been possible to obtain current sales figures
but the book still seems to be a perennial favorite among high school students.
In a personal, survey, every one of the college freshman in my required
English course (two sections, seventy students) was familiar with it.
4Two well-known views that place Holden in his own time suggest the range
of many others. Maxwell Geismar ("J. D. Salinger: the Wise Child and The
New Yorker School of Fiction," in American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity
[New York: Hill and Wang, 1958]) exclaims that "The Catcher in the Rye
protests, to be sure, against both the academic and social conformity of
its period. But what does it argue for? Contemptuous of what he detects
as a faked Anglicized patina, glossing a deracinated Jewish world, Geismar
dismisses the novel's perspective as "well-to-do and neurotic anarchism"
(p. 198). David Galloway (The Absurd Hero in American Fiction [Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1966]), far more sympathetic to Holden's plight,
finds it readily assimilable to his own existentialist concerns. "Holden
doesn't refuse to grow up so much as he agonizes over the state of being
grown up." He stands for modern man (frustrated, disillusioned, anxious)--a
"biting image of the absurd contemporary milieu" (p. 145). While Holden
may indeed stand for modern man, I find Galloway's argument, from absurdity
to frustration, to be a circular one. The question remains: why should
this time be more absurd than any other time; why must frustration be predicated
upon absurdity? Holden has often been compared (unfavorably) to Huck Finn.
But these comparisons are essentially limited to differences in character
and social scene. The deeper structural and thematic affinities between
Catcher and earlier classic American works have either been ignored or
dissipated in the generalities characteristic of the transcultural myth
criticism so popular in the 1950s and 1960s. For an example of the latter,
see Arthur Heiserman and James E. Miller, Jr., "J. D. Salinger: Some Crazy
Cliff," Western Humanities Review 10 (Spring 1956): 129-37.
5The Catcher in the Rye (New York: Bantam, 1964.), p. 187. All quotations
will be from this edition and hereinafter will be cited in parentheses.
6Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Collected Works, Alfred R. Ferguson, general
editor (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971), vol.
1, p. 10.
7Geismar, American Moderns, p. 198. See also Mary McCarthy, "J. D. Salinger'
s Closed Circuit," Harper's Magazine 225 (October 1962): 46-7.
8See the introduction to my Equivocal Endings in Classic American Novels
(Cambridge University Press, 1988) for an outline of the pattern this resistance
takes in classic American novels.
9Nathaniel Hawthorne, Centenary Edition of Collected Works, ed. William
Charvat and others (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1963-1985),
vol. 9, pp. 54-67.
10E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial
Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 60.
11D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment
(New York: The International Universities Press, 1965) pp. 190, 187. Winnicott
stresses the value of isolation to the adolescent. "Preservation of personal
isolation is part of the search for identity and for the establishment
of a personal technique for communicating which does not lead to violation
of the central self" (p. 190). The difficulty for Holden is that his culture
offers no support for his struggle; it is as if the subject of identity
has become such a chronic and pervasive cultural dilemma, generating so
much anxiety, that the adolescent adults who surround him treat the problem
(as his mother does) like a headache they have learned to live with and
12Unusual among early critical responses to Catcher is Hansford Martin'
s "The American Problem of Direct Address," Western Review 16 (Winter 1952),
101-14. Martin notes that American writers almost invariably are concerned
with the problem of voice, of "man-talking-to-you." He calls this "a literature
of direct address," but attributes the phenomenon wholly to the artist'
s democratic concern with the interaction between art and society (p. 101).
13Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1955); John P. Marquand, Sincerely Willis Wayde (Boston: Little,
Brown, 1955); Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963; rpt. New York: Bantam,
14Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, p. 49.
15Compare John Cheever's 1958 story, "The Country Husband," in The Housebreaker
of Shady Hill and Other Stories (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958),
pp. 49-84. Similarly, the husband ends in the basement, devoted to his
psychiatrically prescribed woodworking therapy as a cure for his unnameable
16Cf. Carol and Richard Ohmann, "Reviewers, Critics, and The Catcher in
the Rye," Critical Inquiry 3, no. 1 (Autumn 1976): 15-38. The Ohmanns review
previous critics to point out how Salinger's precise social criticism has
been generalized to deny its topical force. They object to the general
critical response that Holden's predicament has been left to him to solve,
as a problem of more love, the search for identity, and so forth. Instead,
the Ohmanns stress specific bourgeois capitalist relations, hypocrisies
of class and exploitation to which they find Holden responding. While the
Ohmanns rightly, I believe, assert that "the novel draws readers into a
powerful longing for what-could-be, and at the same time interposes what-is
as an unchanging and immovable reality," they readily attribute to Salinger
a political aim ("these values cannot be realized within extant social
forms" [p. 35]) that is really their own. The critics who have read Holden'
s problem as his alone may indeed have missed a good deal of Salinger's
social criticism, but, as I have tried to show, Salinger creates the ambiguity.
In the end, the book offers ample warrant for just this kind of individualistic
17René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1966), pp. 271, 308.
Source: Joyce Rowe, "Holden Caulfield and American Protest," in New Essays
on The Catcher in the Rye, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 77-95.
Source Database: Contemporary Literary Criticism