To remember J. D. Salinger is, of course, to remember The Catcher in the Rye—though not, perhaps, how some critics didn't like it in 1951. Catholic World noted its "formidably excessive use of amateur swearing and coarse language," and there seemed to be some question as to whether an alienated, hard-drinking, chain-smoking flunkie like Holden Caulfield was going to prove a good influence on the young. Other critics did say it made them "chuckle and ... even laugh aloud," and many immediately compared Holden to Huck Finn. Still, Harcourt Brace, which rejected the book, did not yet have much to live down: The overall critical reception was decidedly un-extraordinary. Sales-wise, too, Catcher did reasonably but not exceptionally well. But, now, that was in hardcover. What with the recent invention of the "perfect binding"--a book binding using glue rather than stitching--there was the paperback to consider, as well. Did not Catcher seem like the sort of book that might do well in the new format?
And so it did, going on to sell over 60 million copies. Moreover, in 1956, some dam in critical interest seemed to burst. So many Catcher studies appeared that the '50s were dubbed "the Decade of Salinger"; contemporaneous writers complained of neglect as Holden Caulfield was compared not only to Huck Finn but to Billy Budd, David Copperfield, Natty Bumpo, Quentin Compson, Ishmael, Peter Pan, Hamlet, Jesus Christ, Adam, and Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom put together. What critic George Steiner was to call the "Salinger industry" began to swell fantastically, until it sat like a large, determined bird on a bunker-like egg.
Where did all this start? In a 1940 letter to a friend, a 21-year-old Salinger described his novel-in-progress as "autobiographical"; and decades later, too, in an interview with a high school reporter--the only interview he's ever given--Salinger said, "My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book." Of course, there were differences: unlike Holden, Salinger was, among other things, a half-Jewish, half-Catholic brotherless World War II vet who attended a military academy. He did, though, like Holden, flunk out of prep school. And he was also, like Holden, manager of his high school fencing team, in which capacity he apparently really did once lose the team gear en route to a meet.
More importantly, Salinger seems to have shared Holden's disaffection. Numerous youthful acquaintances remember him as sardonic, rant-prone, a loner. His daughter, Margaret Salinger, likewise traces the alienation in the book to him, though it does not reflect for her either her father's innate temperament or difficult adolescence so much as his experiences of anti-Semitism and, as an adult, war. Where Salinger fought in some of the bloodiest and most senseless campaigns of World War II and apparently suffered a nervous breakdown toward its end, shortly after which--while still in Europe--he is known to have been working on Catcher--it is hardly surprising that Holden's reactions should evoke not only adolescent turmoil but also the awful seesaw of a vet's return to civilian life. Holden may be a rebel without a cause, but he is not a rebel without an explanation: It is easy to read the death of his brother as a stand-in for unspeakable trauma. And witness the notable vehemence with which Holden talks about the war--declaring, for instance, "I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war, I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will."
But what of Margaret Salinger's theory regarding anti-Semitism? She characterizes Salinger as sensitive about his Jewishness with good cause—noting, for example, that a few years before her father’s arrival at the military academy, a Jew who had graduated second in his class found his picture printed on a perforated page of the yearbook so that it could be torn out. Ian Hamilton's unofficial biography of Salinger, too, cites a letter from the father of a girl to whom Salinger once proposed, describing him as "an odd fellow. He didn't mingle much with the other guests [at their Daytona Beach hotel]. … He was—well, is he Jewish? I thought that might explain the way he acted. ... I thought he had a chip on his shoulder."
Interestingly, though, Salinger's sister, in an interview, focuses on his in-between-ness as well. "It wasn't nice to be part-Jewish in those days," she says. "It was no asset to be Jewish either, but at least you belonged somewhere. This way you were neither fish nor fowl." Additionally complicating the picture is the fact that Salinger seems to have grown up revered by his Irish-Catholic mother but disparaged by his Jewish father, who wanted him to enter the family food-import business. Fish and fowl, adored and criticized, Salinger was remembered by some military academy classmates as a guy whose conversation "was laced with sarcasm" but by others as "a regular guy" and by teachers as "quiet, thoughtful, always anxious to please." Strikingly, this sometimes scathing student wrote a class song so convincingly straight ("Goodbyes are said, we march ahead/Success we go to find./Our forms are gone from Valley Forge/Our hearts are left behind) it is still sung at graduation. He edited the yearbook, too, with what so completely passed as earnest conscientiousness that though it is tempting to view his activities as virtuoso performances of deep subterfuge--given his youthful interest in acting, especially--they might also be imagined to have been painfully disconcerting. Holden's description of himself as "the most terrific liar you ever saw" might well have applied to Salinger, and Salinger's own judgment of his divided nature, in this era before "situational selves," might well have involved the word that haunts his book, "phony."
A poignant part of Salinger's genius seems, in any case, to include the way that he transmuted--as he perhaps felt he had to--his particular issues and injuries into a more enigmatic "autobiography" of alienation. And it can only be counted ironic that the result came to exemplify American authenticity: Like James Dean, Holden Caulfield is for many the very picture of the postwar rebel. Young, crude, misunderstood, he stands up to conformist pressures, is drawn to innocence, etcetera. Never mind that Holden is white, male, straight, sophisticated, rich, and a product of the '40s; he personifies anguished resistance to '50s America--indeed, for many, America's truest self. Whether Salinger intended his creation to assume anything like this role--indeed, if he had any notion of the projection of a national identity as a desirable literary goal (as did his contemporary, John Updike, for example)--is unclear.
And is there not something, if not phony, then at least a little strange, about Holden's enshrinement in American culture? To some degree, academia took its cue from the culture; Catcher's skyrocketing sales amid the mid-'50s "youthquake" fairly demanded explanation. Critics like George Steiner saw the bookas all too fitting for the paperback market--short, easy to read, and flattering "the very ignorance and moral shallowness of his young readers." But others saw its success as a promising development, indicative of something enduringly young, defiant, and truth-loving in the American spirit. Drawing on the work of Donald Pease, critic Leerom Medovoi has described how a new Cold War American canon arose around this time--a canon in which American Renaissance works like Moby-Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were cast as a "coherent tradition that dramatized the emergence of American freedom as a literary ideal, somehow already waging its heroic struggle against a prefigured totalitarianism." He provocatively describes how Catcher came to join those works and how the lot of them, read as national allegories, located the very essence of American-ness in principled dissent even as McCarthyism cast it as un-American.
No doubt other scholars, being scholars, disagree. Still, Medovoi's ideas may, in conjunction with the book's Mona Lisa-like ambiguity, help explain how Catcher came to occupy what by other measures seems a strangely high place in American letters, for the book strays notably from mainstream literary values. It is, to begin with, often precious and sentimental. What's more, while the critic Alfred Kazin is, I think, on the mark in ascribing the excitement of Salinger's stories to his "intense, his almost compulsive need to fill in each inch of his canvas, each moment of his scene," the writing in Catcher is nowhere near so alive with moti mentali. The whole, too, is slight. Salinger characterized himself as "a dash man and not a miler"; and indeed, though Catcher's opening explodes with life, the whole reads like a novella that only just managed to shed its diminutive. It does not develop appreciatively through its middle; Holden neither deepens nor comes to share the stage with other characters. Instead the book starts to feel narrow and maniacally one-note; reading it today, one wonders whether its real contribution lies in its anticipation of Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism. In contrast to, say, The Great Gatsby, this is manifestly not a book to be studied for insight into the novel form.
Unless, that is, one is interested is how a book can hit home with no evidence of its author ever having read Henry James's The Art of Fiction. Catcher demonstrates, among other things, how variously and mysteriously novels finally work and how even sophisticated audiences tend to genuflect to art but yield to testimony. We are enthralled by voices that tell it like it is--or, in the case of Catcher, that seem to. My 16-year-old son--who has, coincidentally, been reading Catcher for his 10th grade English class even as I write--puts it this way: "You feel [with Catcher] like you're in on the real story," but that in the end Catcher is a "break" from reality rather than a source of information about it. He likens Holden's appeal to that of Harry Potter: Just as Harry speaks to children because Harry is like them only able to do magic, Holden interests my son because Holden rebels and "gets away with it" in a way my son guesses—rightly--he would never. In short, one part of Catcher's appeal lies in its purveyance of fantasy. This can, of course, have value--sensitizing an audience to the real limits of its freedom, for example--but can support solipsism, too. Alfred Kazin, among other critics, took the harsh view, characterizing Salinger's audience as "the vast number who have been released by our society to think of themselves as endlessly sensitive, spiritually alone, [and] gifted, and whose suffering lies in the narrowing of their consciousness to themselves."
Other explanations of the book's popularity, though, must of course include its outrageous humor and the cult appeal of Salinger’s anti-celebrity, anti-consumerist stance: His contempt for hippies and support for the Vietnam War notwithstanding, he became--first for the '60s counterculture and then for others--the consummate dropout. And though he was later rumored to have gone quite bonkers—drinking urine, espousing Scientology, sitting in a Reichian orgone box, and more--he managed to retain an aura of martyred integrity, which the recurring censorship of Catcher only intensified.
Academia, too, pressed on. The critic Alan Nadel--noting that the Cold War blossomed in the period between 1946 when, for unknown reasons, Salinger withdrew from publication a 90-page version of the book, and 1951, when it was published--interestingly saw in Holden, not so much heroic nonconformity, as a reflection of McCarthyism. Many features of the narrative--the obsession with control in its rhetorical patterns, as well as its preoccupation with duplicity and compulsion to "name names"--bespoke, for Nadel, a psychic imprisonment in which the performance of truth-telling could never yield truth. And indeed, the insistence of phrases such as "I really mean it" and "to tell the truth" do finally seem to signal quicksand more than terra firma. Holden at story's end is under interrogation--more isolated than independent, more defeated than defiant."D.B. [his brother] asked me what I thought about all this stuff I just finished telling you about. ... If you want to know the truth, I don't know what I think about it," he says, touchingly. "I don't know what I think about it": Is this the author of the military academy class hymn wondering about the act and value of writing? Has Holden, the avatar of American authenticity, become an avatar of American inauthenticity? Here Salinger's funhouse proves, yet once again--perhaps enduringly--ours.
Gish Jen's new novel, World and Town, will be published by Knopf in the fall.
This piece was originally published, in somewhat different form, in The New Literary History of America, edited by Werner Sollors and Greil Marcus (Harvard University Press, 2009, copyright, the president and fellows of Harvard College).