He Just Wants to Make Us Happy

The Catcher in the Rye turns 50 this month, and it's worth noting that its longevity has had absolutely nothing to do with the star-maker machinery that permeates the rest of media culture. Its author, J.D. Salinger, has resisted the constant clamor to make it into a film—a Hollywood production of an early short story of his cured him of movie fever forever—and by the 1960s, Salinger had not only stopped publishing altogether but also insisted that his works appear sans cover illustrations or even quotations from critics. That's why Catcher had that simple blood-red cover for so many years and why there was that little flurry of pent-up media attention a few years ago when Salinger finally broke down and allowed his publishers to slap a new cover on it: this time a simple white cover and, again, no illustration, no quotes, no ads.

Nowadays, virtually nothing survives without hype, so there's some amazement here: for his own gnomic reasons, Salinger, like Bartleby the Scrivener, has "preferred not to"—to get in the cultural ring, to be part of any hype—and he's gambled that the voice of the lonely, hilarious, incredibly vulnerable boy who narrates his only novel will survive with no help but the readers who realize how close that voice is to the one within themselves, one that many of them didn't even know they had until Holden Caulfield came along.

It's hard to do justice to The Catcher in the Rye. It seems like a simple book about lost innocence told in simple, colloquial language, with fairly obvious symbols that carry the novel's meanings transparently enough: Holden's sweet concern for the missing ducks in Central Park speaks to his desire to preserve the vulnerable things in life, as does Holden's central fantasy of being a "catcher in the rye" who saves children from falling over a cliff; his belated recognition that he has to allow the innocent to grab the gold ring and "not say anything" ("If they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything") tells us that he's learned he has to grow up, that he can't be a catcher after all.

You can fuss up the book by comparing it to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or American existentialist novels like Dangling Man or Invisible Man, and you can make it hold up. You can historicize it and show how Holden's voice was one of the first to speak for the new alienated postwar youth culture. You can say all this stuff in lectures, as I have, and students can write it down in their notebooks, but none of it quite gets at why so many of us continue to read it not only with endless pleasure but also with an almost embarrassing and vulnerable love. We read it that way because Salinger, through the voice of Holden, creates an atmosphere in which a reader's closeness to Holden is not just desirable but also absolutely necessary for the book to work. Holden wants nothing more, remember, than to talk to people and be understood, to get through to them and somehow palliate the crushing loneliness that more than once makes him "wish I was dead." ("Loneliness," incidentally, is a much bigger problem for us than "alienation.") He'll ask the pathetic Ackley along to a movie; he'll ask nasty cab drivers to have drinks with him; he'll fool around with cookie-cutter prepster girls like Sally Hayes; and he'll try to have "intelligent conversations" with the insufferable Carl Luce. But none of it works; nobody understands—except his beloved sister, Phoebe (in her prelapsarian way), and us, the fallen reader, whom Holden addresses directly and trusts implicitly from the first line of the book ("If you really want to hear about it . . ."). Holden assumes, crucially, that we will share his deepest feelings: when he tells us about his dead brother, Allie, he says, "You'd have liked him," and when he brings up Phoebe, he says (three times in one paragraph), "You'd like her." When we meet him on the open, generous terms he offers us, a circle gets closed, from him to us and back again, and the intimacy and tenderness keep getting reinforced until, by the end of the book, many readers feel as if they've never felt closer to anybody in their lives as this character made out of ink.

Salinger labored on the novel for 10 years, but the intimacy of Holden's voice feels effortless. Part of this comes from Salinger's extraordinary ear for speech, which you also get in, for instance, his great Glass family stories. But it's not just technique operating here. It's an inhabitation of character so complete that it amounts to soul ventriloquism—full blown.

And what a rare privilege it is—how often does it happen in real life?—to get to know a soul so well. Holden may be, as he says, "the biggest liar you ever met in your life," who (hysterically and out of nowhere) tells a woman on a train, "I have this tiny little tumor on my brain," but he can't lie to himself, and he never lies to us. Though he constantly complains about the phonies around him, he's never bitter, and he not only gives everybody a chance to redeem themselves but also finds something good in everyone (even if _it's only to say that somebody's a great dancer or whistler). And despite the desperation and loneliness that lead to a breakdown by the end of the book, the world for him is always lit up with generous, spirited comedy, from boys (like Eddie Marsala) who fart in chapel to boys (like Holden) who find themselves asking girls they don't even like to run off and live with them in the woods. That Holden "gets a bang out of things," as he puts it, is essential: he brings more than just honesty to the table. He wants, for our sake, to make us happy.

I don't think there's a single other book in American literature in which the narrator so badly needs the reader to understand him and cure his solitude, and there's no American book in which the novelist creates the illusion of solidarity between his character and the reader more successfully. In fact, the illusion is so strong that it doesn't feel like illusion at all: Salinger dreamed Holden Caulfield right into our lives, and 50 years on, he still feels right here, red hat on, striding the American blast, needing us more than ever.

Thanks to Julie Wilhelm for conversations in which many of these ideas came to light.

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