Until his press agent announced his death a few days ago, I‘d thought little about J.D. Salinger these last years. I suspect you hadn’t either. He’d slipped to a distant corner of my memory. I doubt though that the notoriously reclusive Salinger — if a “successful” recluse can also at the same time be notorious — would be offended by our lapses. I am sure that’s the way he would have things be. (I must confess that I have this penchant for deeming the once famous but also very much “still with us” to be long in the grave. It’s nothing personal or even intentional. I just sometimes have a hard time keeping up with who’s “Alive or Dead” … and if the “deemed deceased” is already an infamous recluse, well, it doesn’t help matters.)
I came across Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye the first time when I was around fifteen. At the time I was ensconced in that clumsy, goofy, confused and cynical state that accompanied much of my adolescence.
Catcher was on the Reading List in Mrs. Ashby’s Tenth Grade English Lit class that semester and there were rumors from the Junior Class about the book. There was an even bigger buzz about salacious passages in my first choice, God’s Little Acre. The book seemed on permanent loan at the school library, however.
We were required to select, read and report on twelve books for the semester and Catcher looked to be as short a “read” as any of the other eighty-three titles on the list. Of equal consequence was that by the time that I’d caught the Number 57 Collier Heights bus and arrived at the Atlanta Public Library’s Main Branch (behind Davison’s), there was still a copy of Salinger’s 1951 seminal tome on the shelf. As had been rumored, the cuss words were right there, in plain view, on page one:
“… In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all — I’m not saying that — but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me …”
It wasn’t the cuss words that raised my teenage adrenaline level, although it would have been if this had been a year or two prior; salacious language or a suggestive scene in something like God’s Little Acre would have certainly done the trick. The thing that kept me turning pages was Holden Caulfield’s narration – Salinger’s writing. By page ten or so, I was hooked.
Lord love a duck!
Holden Caulfield, so far, seemed to have a view of the world very similar to my own and he spoke in a down to Earth way that I could understand. None of that “Forsooth” stuff or “Wherefore art thou Guinivere” Shakespeare business. I didn’t need Mrs. Ashby or anyone else to interpret for me “what the author was really saying.” It was obvious. It was as if Holden Caulfield was speaking directly to me. Maybe he was even speaking for me.
On the surface, young Billy Cantrell and young Holden Caulfield came from world’s that had little in common. Caulfield was a tall, gangling adolescent from a well-to-do family, who attended a private prep school in Agerstown (Pa.). Billy Cantrell, whose single mother was doing her best to keep Georgia Power at bay every month, was a relentlessly clumsy black kid living in the Deep South and trying his best to get out of adolescence — and English Lit — alive. But there were some strikingly similar undercurrents in Billy’s and Holden’s world especially when it came to dealing with adults, girls, teachers, and people that we both thought of as “phonies.”
For the rest of the weekend, I devoured Catcher as if it were my Aunt Vera’s peach cobbler … and ended up reading the damn thing again — twice — long before any due date, a rarity for me in those days. (In a spirit of more or less full disclosure, I confess that both readings were aided by the fact that I was at home on two successive Saturday nights. Cassie Morgan had turned down my multiple requests to take her to see Goldfinger — or on a date of any kind — because she told me that she always washed her hair on Saturday evenings.)
By the end of the book, Holden Caulfield still is not terribly motivated to apply himself to school or to the conformist world of the early 1950s. By denouement, he is “narrating” from a sanitarium. But despite his troubles, Holden figures out some basic truths about life, people and maybe even about himself.
By the book’s last page, I had also figured out that despite Holden’s problems he was good at heart, cared about other people and maybe that was what mattered most in life. (A little before the book’s end I also finally figured out what the title meant. Sorry, I ain’t tellin’.)
To be sure, Salinger, Catcher, and Holden Caulfield resonated with me. Catcher in the Rye resonated within a lot of us. Since its first printing in 1951, it has reportedly sold 65 million copies throughout the world and even sells a quarter million copies annually, 60 years after its first release. (I found this last fact somewhere on the Internet, so I guess that it must be true.) Salinger published other short stories and collections after Catcher but none received the acclaim of the 1951 publication.
Salinger’s Holden Caulfield made getting out of adolescence just a wee bit easier. (Of course, I’d also figured out that Cassie Morgan was not only the prettiest girl in my class but also undoubtedly had the cleanest damn hair in the school district.)
As I read about Salinger’s death a couple f days ago, I was reminded of the rumors that there may be a largesse of unpublished works in a safe in his Cornish, New Hampshire home … some of which could be released at a later date. At the same time, I am also reminded of my own intrigue at how Holden Caulfield “turned out.” Did he, in fact, make it out of adolescence and the sanitarium alive? What kind of a man did he grow to be? Did he become the man that his daddy was?
I suspect that Geraldo, or some other erstwhile investigator, will be dusting off his safe-cracking skills again soon. Maybe Rivera will have a better go of it this time around than he did with Capone’s safe. In a way though, I hope that he doesn’t. Sequels are never as good as the original and there’s always the chance that Jerome David Salinger only caught ‘”lightning in a bottle” that one time.
The naked truth is that I’d just as soon Holden Caulfield stay frozen in time, the way he was/is in my teenage memory. I suspect that if Salinger wanted us to know how things turned out with Holden, he’d have seen fit to tell us. He never did, of course. I suspect that both Salinger and Caulfield preferred it this way.
He was a recluse, so you just never know.
© Copyright 2010 Will Cantrell