In Defense of Holden Caulfield
A lot will be written about J.D. Salinger’s death, much of it on the subject of The Catcher in the Rye. Most of it will be more perceptive or better written than this blog post. But I remain a Salinger apologist, and I’d rather talk about Holden Caulfield than the State of the Union just about any day of the week (for Salinger’s short stories, you’re advised to go elsewhere; The New Yorker has done a fine job of assembling them here).
My defense of Salinger is simple: I think The Catcher in the Rye is the first book that truly captures the vernacular of adolescence. In a media environment that is absolutely saturated with adolescent drama and humor, this may strike you as an unremarkable accomplishment. But The Catcher in the Rye was written just as youth culture was entering into the popular conscious, so Salinger deserves credit for anticipating a pretty significant cultural sea change.
It has become fashionable in certain quarters to sneer at Holden as an over-entitled, basically uninteresting character. I suspect this is because Caulfield, as the most well-known exemplar of youthful angst, is over-exposed compared to other characters in our literary canon. But you would be well-advised to ignore the detractors: Salinger captures the vocabulary of adolescence better than just about any other author, before or since. Caulfield’s caustic take on school spirit in the book’s opening pages immediately comes to mind:
It was the last game of the year, and you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn’t win
Similar sentiments have been expressed by kids the world over on their way to yet another mandatory pep rally, but nobody does resigned cynicism better than Salinger. That high school English teachers have pushed the book on disinterested students for generations (the irony!) shouldn’t take away from this accomplishment.
Another point in Caulfield’s favor: The Catcher in the Rye’s ending has always struck me as pitch-perfect. Some people find it unsatisfying, largely because Caulfield’s “maturation” towards the end is so tentative. This emphatically misses the point. Caulfield’s half-hearted attempt to get his act together is immediately reminiscent of every promise you’ve ever made to work harder at school or take applying to college seriously or whatever. The promise and frustration of adolescent potential, summed up perfectly by Caulfield’s flaky commitment not to fail out of yet another prep school, has never been more heart-breaking or true to life.