News of J.D. Salinger’s death a while back set me thinking of Holden Caulfield and "Catcher in the Rye." I remember well the first time I read the book. I understood and shared Holden’s distaste for “phony” people, and I hoped I wasn’t one.
I think too, I could feel Holden's calling or compulsion to catch people–to save them; not just in an evangelistic sort of way, but from being hurt in this life. Teenagers seemed so innocent and vulnerable to me and so many of them were hurt and thrown away by selfish, phony adults. Looking back I think that was the core of my motive for much of my life's work.
I’m pretty sure “catching” was the main motivator for me, because to this day, I am sorrowful about those I tried to catch, but missed. Anyway… if you’re not familiar with the book, here’s Holden explaining:
You know that song, “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye”?…
His little sister Phoebe interrupts
It’s “If a body meet a body coming through the rye”!’ It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.
J.D. Salinger defies understanding but people keep trying. There's a new book and movie called "Salinger" that promises to give us a glimpse, finally, of the man and author who lived in isolation. A read-worthy review of the new book and movie is in the current New Yorker.
That Salinger was wounded, like many of a generation, by combat is obvious; that it “explains” everything he wrote after is the kind of five-cent psychiatry that gives a bad name to nickels. (In any case, as the authors admit, Salinger already had six or so chapters of the book finished before he set foot in France, while the Holdenish sensibility—if not Holden’s sweetness and essential helplessness—was shared by hundreds of artists of the period, most of whom had never held a rifle.)
In the review is a statement that made me say, "Yes!" out loud. Why is that so many times we can't just let a life lived be a life lived, or a song sung or a poem written? Here's the statement:
The subject of the book and documentary is not Salinger the writer but Salinger the star: exactly the identity he spent the last fifty years of his life trying to shed. Cast entirely in terms of celebrity culture and its discontents, every act of Salinger’s is weighed as though its primary purpose was to push or somehow extend his “reputation”—careerism is simply assumed as the only motive a writer might have.
I will probably read this new book and will probably see the movie. I will do it with the same cynical eye and ear, that are dominate for me. And then I am sure I will say something like, "Why do we try to figure out who Salinger really was. He gave us Holden Caulfield. And he didn't feel like he needed to help us figure Holden out, he just let him be who he was.
Holden was important to me in sorting out adolescence and he is important to me in this second coming-of-age at 62.
Here’s one of my favorite parts of the book, Holden is remembering the Museum of Natural History. Read it and see what I mean.
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different.The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly… I mean you’d be different in some way — I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.
Oh, and to those I should have caught and missed: I am sorry.