Holden Caulfield--what an insufferable jerk, right? Either that or the very essence of what it means to be a disillusioned teenager. Catcher in the Rye never fails to bring out a strong response, sometimes negative, sometimes positive. I regret to say that I see a lot more of the former among kids Holden's age these days. I've never taught the book myself (though I will next year, which is, like Hamlet, why I'm re-reading it now), but I've known kids who've read it, and for whatever reason, most kids don't want to see themselves in Holden.
I get it, of course. No kid in 2013, especially in 2013, would ask a question like, "Do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?" Holden is immature, callow, and unrealistic, despite his champions' attempts to turn him into some sort of cynical saint. But I think that both of these approaches are wrong-headed. Why is it that we feel the need to turn Holden into a symbol of youth, instead of letting him be what he is: a complicated, fragile, and achingly "real" character?
This is the first time I've read Catcher in the Rye--which details Holden's adventures in NYC during the few days between getting kicked out of his prestigious prep school and returning home--since reading Salinger's other works, Franny and Zooey; Seymour: An Introduction; Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters; and Nine Stories. Salinger suggests (I forget in which book--probably Seymour) that Buddy, a member of the Glass family that recurs throughout Salinger's non-Catcher works, is the author of Catcher. This suggestion, I think, makes Catcher doubly rich and complex. In this light, Catcher becomes not merely the profile of a single troubled young man but a complement to the Glass stories; Holden becomes an analogue for Buddy; Holden's sister Phoebe becomes an analogue for Zooey; Holden's deceased brother, Allie, becomes an analogue for Seymour, the suicide*.
What I mean is not merely that the books become a match-up game. What it reveals for me is the way that Holden, far from being overly dramatic and trivial as his detractors suggest, is beset with anxiety about death. There's Allie's death, of course, and his baseball mitt covered in poetry that is Holden's prized possession. There's the story of James Castle, who borrows Holden's turtleneck sweater before jumping out a window to his death. It's a small passage, easy to lose in the larger narrative of Catcher, but isn't it interesting the way that Buddy Glass, if we think of the book as his creation, must process his feelings about Seymour's death by splitting it into two concrete elements: a dead brother and a suicide? Of course, you don't need to understand that aspect of Catcher to see the connection between the dead Allie and the figure in Holden's sweater bleeding out onto the concrete, to understand what Holden cannot put words to: that these deaths are inextricably tied to him.
I want to think about those things before we dismiss Holden's idealistic visions of "catching" the children who run through the rye. No wonder that Holden is so protective of Phoebe; if he can keep her from being corrupted by adulthood, perhaps he can protect her from death. Phoebe's precociousness, that which makes her seem older than her age--like Seymour's, like Holden's, like Esme's in "For Esme, with Love and Squalor"--is suffused with the reality of death. What is Holden's obsession with the ducks in Central Park but a death-anxiety, a fear of the ultimate abandonment? Or what about this:
Anyway, I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything. Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddamn curb, I had this feeling that I'd never get to the other side of the street. I thought I'd just go down, down, down, and nobody'd ever see me again. Boy, did it scare me. You can't imagine. I started sweating like a bastard--my whole shirt and underwear and everything. Every time I'd get to the end of a block I'd make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I'd say to him, "Allie, don't let me disappear. Allie, don't let me disappear. Please, Allie."
Down, down, down and nobody'd ever see me again. Holden is the catcher, but he needs Allie to catch him before he disappears--and, of course, the ultimate irony is that the only ones who know enough about the great mystery of death to help you are the ones who you can never reach.
*Note: In Slate, Ron Rosenbaum pleads with the Salinger estate to publish any unreleased works, in part to redeem Salinger for the Seymour works, which Rosenbaum finds insufferable and tedious. I don't think he could be more wrong about that, but I hope that he gets whet he wants all the same.