J. D. Salinger: Requiescat in Pace

Author J. D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, is dead at age 91.

I confess that I never liked Holden Caulfield, if I am a Salinger fan. A young co-ed at the University of Chicago told me during my Orientation Week freshman year that I was the living image of Salinger’s angst ridden, clever anti-hero. I would have preferred to have been likened to Woody Allen (and I wouldn’t have enjoyed that, either, frankly). But Salinger’s artistry was undeniable.

It wasn’t until I was a teacher at Valley Forge Military Academy, where Salinger went to school and supposedly used as a model for Pencey Prep, that I learned anything of interest about this author-recluse. It turns out that he was a loyal alumnus to ‘the Forge’ who had only fond memories of the place (he attended alumni gatherings there well after his retreat to his hermitage in New Hampshire). I suspect it was because the military skills he learned there — and Valley Forge really was a military school in the 1930’s when he was a student, including classes in how to fire a machine gun, etc. — helped him get through the Normandy invasion and drive to the Rhine as admirably as he did.

Two questions for you, in Salinger’s memory:

Do you remember your first reading of Catcher in the Rye?

And in what ways, if any, do you think Ms. Rowling’s Harry Potter and all boy-novel protagonists inevitably are shades of Holden Caulfield, Salinger’s signature contribution to letters?


  1. I have a really hard time with this one. I read “Catcher in the Rye” in high school because I kept hearing it about it from other kids, the boys especially. I wanted to see for myself what this wonderful book was all about. And honestly, I hated it. There wasn’t anything I liked about the character. I didn’t identify with him, as so many have said they did. So, I never went back to reread it. Since I didn’t read it as an assignment, I didn’t delve any deeper into the structure or meaning than what I found on the surface.

    I almost think that is a better test of a book than the ones that students and teachers read and analyze. If a book isn’t relevant to the reader or doesn’t make a lasting impression that is positive or powerful, then it just remains another book that can be added to the “books I’ve read” list, and nothing more.

    Now for the last part of your question about how other boy-novel protagonists are shades of Holden Caulfield: I suppose in some ways they are, just as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Peter Pan have influenced characters since those books were read. But I don’t know that I would give too much credit to Salinger for all the boy characters that have been written since 1951. Caulfield was a reflection of the times. Teens were very restricted in the 1950s and before. That doesn’t mean they didn’t do things they shouldn’t. But there were clear boundaries. After the 60s, those boundaries began to blur and still are blurred. In the 1950s, if a kid got in trouble at school you wouldn’t have heard a parent criticizing the school. The kid was going to be in trouble at home as well.

    But I don’t think that “Catcher in the Rye” effected that change. It was just a snapshot of how a lot of unhappy kids felt at the time the book was written. And apparently there are still a lot of the same issues or the book wouldn’t continue to get so much press. The James Dean movie, “Rebel Without a Cause” comes to mind here. It was in the same time frame, a few years later, a movie rather than a book, but it’s dealing with the same kinds of issues – a teen who is unhappy, questioning, stepping out of the strict boundaries set by parents and society. Both are a reflection of the times – post WW II, a time when parents wanted to give their kids what they hadn’t had through the Depression years. Societal views were changing, but I don’t think the image of Holden Caulfield can be credited with sparking that change.

    I just wasn’t as unhappy or angry or disatisfied as Holden. I didn’t talk the way he did, nor did I step outside the moral boundaries in the way he did. I think that was the key to the book. Anyone who felt any angst found a voice through the character of Caulfield; for those who didn’t identify with him, we moved on to other books.

    Just one note here. Just because I didn’t like “Catcher in the Rye” because it wasn’t personal to me doesn’t mean that I never read other things that were outside my own experience. I read a lot that was. But when there were characters who didn’t make choices that I would have made or had differing views or life-styles, I didn’t turn them into a hero that I wanted to emulate. By reading “Catcher in the Rye”, I think I had a better understanding of why some of the kids in my high school acted the way they did. So I suppose that was useful, but it didn’t go farther than that.

    I can’t speak of anything else by Salinger. I didn’t like the one book I read enough that I wanted to read more of his work. I have always found his story rather odd – the self-imposed isolation. There are other authors who didn’t write much beyond one book (Margaret Mitchell with “Gone with the Wind only wrote the one book), but I don’t really get why Salinger essentially went into hiding.


  2. Arabella Figg says

    Pat, you’ve eloquently stated much of my thinking, which I found difficult to articulate. I also read the book on my own as a teen and hated it, and I had plenty of personal angst. Feeling I might have been too young, I tried reading it later, but couldn’t get into it and haven’t tried since. I agree that a reader should find at least some of a book relevant, sympathetic or likeable, or at least appreciate it. I couldn’t do any of those.

    Holden was definitely a reflection of his particular postwar times; he couldn’t have been written as he was a decade earlier or later, without being markedly different. That said, I suppose Harry, during his fifth year, reflects Holden’s alienation, if not his cleverness.

    As for Salinger’s chosen isolation, I admire a person that doesn’t get caught up in the fame machinery.

  3. Perelandra says

    I remember seeing the book in a shop window when it was new and wondered what it was about. At about 16, I found out by reading it. I don’t recall liking Holden either because he was so overwrought. The payoff was wasted on me because I didn’t realize that the F-word was supposed to be utterly beyond the pale. I did defend the book when questions were raised about its propriety by some other girls at my college.

    Later I read FRANNY AND ZOOEY but it bored me. No more Sainger after that.

    I do however know a yound couple who named their children Holden and Zoe.

  4. In the New York Times today: Room for Comment about Catcher in the Rye. I especially enjoyed the ComBox observation that ‘The Catcher’ is really about Holden’s grief for his dead brother. This is lost on most readers today who are caught in the gravitational pull of the lead character’s supposed rebelliousness and hatred of “phonies.”

    The observations in this piece, too, about ‘The Dumbest Generation,” boomers railing on the generation of children they have medicated (and still despise), rather took me aback. If today’s children do not identify with Holden, perhaps it is because they see him as the seed of the aging, risible boomers that they despise.

  5. I am either happy or sad, depending on whose review I read, that I have never read Catcher in the Rye. For some reason in early ’80’s to mid-’80’s in high school they never had us read it. Although we did read other weird books like Bless the Beasts & the Children and The Chocolate War, both of which I disliked intensely. One of the best high school lit classes I ever took was on Gothic literature. Lots of Stoker & Poe!! 🙂

  6. Tinuvielas says

    Just phoned my mum to ask how I reacted at the time because I don’t remember anything except the impression that the guy was on drugs… which may well be inaccurate – and on second thoughts, my revulsion at the constant swearing (much like the constant smoking in old films which really ticks me off nowadays). Oh, and I do remember WHERE I read it: In my parent’s bedroom, tinged green by the shade of the curtains…
    My mother was a huge fan of the book and recommended it to me when I was a teenager, saying that it expressed the ideas of a generation and “everyone identified with the hero”, so I picked it up, but found it utterly boring – I couldn’t get what the fuss was all about, and I never went back to it either. Perhaps I should, if only to see whether or not I get the message now, given the benefit of many years, parenthood and a degree in English Literature… (but then I’d rather read John’s books if I have time, or Eliade, or reread Dante, or just read some nice escapish fantasy… PPP).
    Anyway my mom (born in the early fourties) says she likes it because this clever loser-loner of a guy talks so insightfully about all these people, and because of scenes like his little sister wanting to come with him – witty, touching, full of humor and well made. Her memories and opinions, not mine.

  7. I didn’t read Catcher until very recently. It is required reading for high schoolers here in MA so I read it when I worked at a high school, since I was helping students write essays about it all the time. Of course, since I was in my 20s, I thought Holden was self-involved and that the story had no real point at all. Upon reflection, it does take the tone of many teenagers, though I will say that many of my students had trouble relating with him as well. He’s a whiner and doesn’t DO anything to change his situation.

    In terms of impacting JKR, I think only in that it puts the reader into the mind of a 16 year old boy, which is a dangerous place. I can’t see many similarities to the series as whole, but if you think about OOTP and Harry working through his angst, its very Holden-like. But because we have all of Harry’s story, I feel much more invested in OOTP. Its hard to slog through, but worth it because it makes Harry who he is. You get none of that payoff with Holden. The story just ends.

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