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On The Anniversary of Salinger's Death, A Reconsideration of His Work

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

April 28,1973
Robert Coles

By now J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield would be approaching 40, and perhaps (with him one can't be certain) would have fathered one or two of those children he dreamed of catching, in case their frolic in the rye led them dangerously astray. By no means have readers wearied of Holden. As of April 1972 his youthful preoccupations had gone into their 33rd paperback printing. It is hard to estimate the influence of a widely read book, but surely few writers have affected certain young people of a generation as strongly as Salinger did in the 1950s and into the early 1960s. And by some fateful irony, his stories stopped appearing at just the point that some of his long-time admirers began to turn to other writers and thinkers for sanction—as if he sensed that he had gone as far as he could in a particular direction: so, better silence than repetition, or worse, the scorn of the young idealists whose sense of the world he had made such a keen effort to understand.

Over and over again Salinger's name crossed the lips of the white, middle-class civil rights activists who a decade ago began to leave Ivy League colleges for work in the South. I was living in the South then, working with SNCC and with the black and white youths who pioneered school desegregation. Scarcely a day went by that Salinger's name wasn't mentioned. For the high-school students (and I would include a number of black ones we were talking with) Holden Caulfield was very much a saint of sorts. Others were fooled by all the "phonies" who run and work in schools, but Holden knew better, and perhaps (the hope was repeatedly expressed) some of those who read about him would gain enough toughness and imaginativeness of spirit to follow his example. Of course those youths often failed to mention what happened to Holden; in the last chapter he is in a psychiatric hospital, and one guesses it is a private one. In contrast that outcome certainly was not ignored by the somewhat older youths who had interrupted those blissful years at Harvard and Yale, the University of Chicago or Berkeley for a stint of by no means easy political protest in obscure counties of Mississippi, Alabama, or Louisiana. To them Salinger had become a temporary enemy of sorts—the lot of any fallen hero, I suppose.

As I returned to Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey I thought of what I had heard in the South 10 years ago—it seems like a century has intervened; and so at my wife's suggestion I also went through again some of my old working notes and reports. Here, for instance, is what I heard one evening in a Freedom House, set up in the Mississippi Delta during the summer of 1964: "There was a time I thought Salinger was God Almighty—he saw so much, and he made me see so much. I read Catcher in the Rye in high school and it was the most important thing I read then. It’s strange to think back, but for a long time I was Holden Caulfield. I remember thinking that Salinger must have disguised himself in my hometown and taken notes on all of us my age; he knew how we spoke, what we thought. I even wrote him a letter—the only time I've ever done that. I told him he'd written a ghost story; Holden Caulfield was my ghost, haunting me. My girlfriend said the same thing; Holden was her and her brother and me—and, well: everyone in our school, it seemed, or at least the people we liked. It made no difference that Holden was a boy; he spoke for her—they were soulmates, she used to say. But I'll tell you, that's all a thing of the past. Who can spend his life calling people phonies? The Negroes here in the Delta aren't phonies. Even the redneck segregationists aren't; they say what they believe. (In a way they're more honest than my liberal parents and my liberal professors.) And lately Salinger has really flipped; all that mystical business. Here you meet people who can't vote, and don't know where their next meal is coming from, and he's giving us that screwy Glass family and their endless obsessions. That just has to be the most self-centered family in all literature!"

There was more, much more. I remember how angry I became as I listened, for I had been almost as haunted by the Glass family as he had once been by Holden Caulfield. When I remarked that I thought it wasn't exactly fair to connect Mississippi's serious and awful racial problems with Salinger's stories, this young radical—I will call him Jim—let me know how fair he believed it was to do precisely that: "I don't deny Salinger's skill as a writer. I'm not even opposed to the subject matter. If he wants to keep examining the minds of those upper-middle-class misfits, then let him. He's got the Madison-Park-Lexington Avenue scene down cold. He knows every nook and cranny. I still respect him as a writer; he can seduce you like mad. But I can't take his philosophy: Sit back and contemplate the universe; say your prayers day and night; look for the Fat Lady like Seymour Glass did. The Fat Lady was Jesus Christ. Well, are these Klan guys down here Jesus Christ? If so, we have plenty of ugly Fat Ladies down here, and we're out to take a stand against them, win a war against them, not contemplate our navels."

That was the end of that; I was by then even angrier at Jim, but also rather critical of myself. I was not taking the risks he was, and I was expecting of him a degree of detachment and literary “objectivity” that was unreasonable, given his circumstances. Worse, I was plain condescending: He could forsake Salinger, but certainly I would never outlive the need to keep in mind what an important writer was trying to expose and satirize, or on the other hand indicate to be significant.

It has turned out that Jim has perhaps forgotten a good deal less of his Salinger than I have. He stayed in Mississippi for the rest of that summer, was once almost killed by an explosion of dynamite planted by someone. A year later he was back. Two years later he was back again. Three years later he was demonstrating against the Vietnam war and teaching English in a high school. The book he found most useful: Catcher in the Rye. The self-important phonies Salinger bears down upon so hard and relentlessly were all around him, and he was glad for the help of a writer who could be satirical without bitterness or nastiness. Anyway, many of the students he taught had already read the book on their own—one of the few they actively sought out.

By 1968 he was disenchanted as never before—and increasingly without interest in politics. Mississippi was becoming a fading memory. The war in Vietnam outraged him, but he wanted more and more to fit that particular horror into a much larger "frame of reference," to use his words. "Why do people behave so meanly and think so narrowly and worry themselves endlessly over things that are of little if any consequence?" Jim asked that question when I saw him in 1970. I remember thinking—the inadequacy, if not the idiocy of those adjectives we call upon to type a person or his mood—that he was becoming very "philosophical." And a year later I was less casual with my adjectives and maybe a little vexed: He was indeed "philosophical," to the point that he had used some strong drugs, was "into" yoga, and spoke of Eastern religious ideas which I knew little or nothing about—only that Salinger had referred to them once obliquely in Catcher in the Rye, and again, with more  emphasis, in "Zooey." It had come about that the young teacher was urging Salinger on me, and I was holding back.

Yet, as I returned to Salinger’s novels and stories recently I began to appreciate what that no longer so youthful but still idealistic, gentle, and thoughtful Jim was trying to tell me a few years ago. "Don't you see," he had said, "J. D. saw it all, he saw it all, 10 years ago, 20." I didn’t like the way he referred to Salinger—folksy informality can irritate—but found it hard to argue with him; Salinger long ago went beyond spotting phonies in private schools (or among psychiatrists). Unlike some satirists, he came up with a remarkably compelling (and it has turned out, contemporary) analysis of what might be a better way for us to live with each other, not to mention ourselves.

Holden Caulfield is yet another quizzical adolescent, scornful of what he does see and quite sure there is even more to unearth and condemn. He is kin of Maisie in Henry James' What Maisie Knew and of Portia in Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the Heart; like them, he serves the author's purpose: to scrutinize the banalities and cruelties that the rest of us, grown-up and so sure of our right to preach to children, often make a point of ignoring or justifying. But Salinger is not only a shrewd and winning observer or critic; he is also a rather active proponent of certain values—and it turns out, a man of considerable vision. In the late 1940s, when Holden first began to appear (in Collier's, December 1945, in The New Yorker, December 1946) men wore their hair short, the nation was hopeful that its industrial productivity, so accelerated by World War II, would continue to increase by leaps and bounds, psychoanalysis was becoming a virtual religion among the agnostic haute bourgeoisie of cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, and certainly the idea of being a soldier and fighting a war was not looked down upon—the worst tyrant in history having just been defeated through the efforts of millions of American, British, and Russian troops. Nevertheless Holden differed strongly with those and other habits or assumptions of postwar America. If his differences were destined to be overlooked or unduly taken in stride by his admirers, then one has to ask whether any criticism could really unnerve Eisenhower's America.

Much of the criticism of Catcher in the Rye (thoughtfully and diligently assembled a decade ago by Henry Anatole Grunwald in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait) centers on Holden Caulfield as the enfant terrible, or the mixed-up, if not seriously “disturbed” adolescent. True, he is praised for his social commentary, or condemned as a snotty kid who sees the obvious, all from the vantage point of obvious money and power (His father is a corporation lawyer.) But the emphasis is always on the private schools he attended, one after the other, or the New York scene that keeps coming up: the Hotel Biltmore, Central Park, the museums, the theater, the skating rink, a movie, a cafeteria, a train terminal, a swanky apartment building or two. That is, Holden is given credit for getting the number of all the phonies he meets in those places, or is called a self-indulgent brat who has no real "depth," only a kind of smart-aleck, superficial shrewdness.

In fact, Holden long ago addressed himself to the most serious of concerns; and they are ones which still hold our attention. He can't imagine himself fighting in a war. He is aghast at the tawdriness of urban life; he yearns for a place that is quiet, that is "nice and peaceful"—not surrounded by defaced buildings and noisemaking machines and air that one can’t enjoy breathing. His girlfriend wonders why people have to wear crew cuts. And he extends his criticism of a particular culture a lot further than that: the dreariness and rigidity of the “best” education; the smugness and narrowness that a certain kind of psychoanalytic ideologue can demonstrate, and for doing so, be worshipped as a virtual messiah; and not least, the subtle nature of that social and psychological “adjustment” most of us make to the various “powers and principalities” we recognize both dimly and quite clearly (depending upon which moment it is) as our ultimate masters—always to be taken into consideration and appeased, if not followed blindly.

Today there are words, names, phrases for "developments" which Holden Caulfield, Franny and Zooey, and their creator had no idea they would anticipate: ecology; the counterculture; the educational reform movement; the insistence of doctors like R. D. Laing that psychoanalysis amount to something more than a clever means of enforcing the "politics of adjustment." Holden ends up being questioned by doctors who might have profited from what he saw. If he is a wise guy, one wants to use the expression in the literal sense. Besides, what are we to call the people who run or teach in Pencey Prep and Saxon Hall and all the other places he attended? What are we to make of that psychiatrist he mentions, so eager to push a youth of bothersome intelligence and candor into various straitjackets—after which he can be called "normal" or "mature"? In "Franny" briefly, in "Zooey" at greater length, such ironical issues again get probed rather well, and in addition a few others are brought into focus. The arrogant and priggish Lane Coutell, at lunch with an extraordinarily spiritual, yet enraged and offended Franny, soon enough was to be exposed by thousands of women as a pretentious male egotist. As for the minister Dr. Homer Vincent Claude Pierson, Jr. (author of "God is My Hobby"), he and his kind have ready access to cozy Sunday services at the White House—"little informal visits with God" is Salinger's all too prophetic description.

I have no idea why Salinger has not in recent years graced us with more stories. It is no one's business, really. He has already given us enough, maybe too much: We so far have not shown ourselves able to absorb and use the wisdom he has offered us. Today the man I have quoted, Jim, finds Salinger "as important as any writer" he has read; in a sense he has come full circle—from Salinger to Salinger. A dedicated if somewhat offbeat school teacher, his mind and spirit are not unlike Zooey's: sarcastic at times, tender and vulnerable at other times; now indignant, now resigned and intensely prayerful. A while back one could read Salinger and feel him to be not only an original and gifted writer, a marvelous entertainer, a man free of the slogans and clichés the rest of us fall prey to, or welcome as salvation itself, but also a terribly lonely man. Perhaps he still feels lonely; but he is, I think, not so alone these days. The worst in American life he anticipated and portrayed to us a generation ago. The best side of us—Holden and the Glasses—still survives, and more can be heard reaching for expression in various ways and places, however serious the present-day assaults from various authorities. I put down Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey this year again grateful to their author. I wondered once more how to do justice to his sensibility: his wide and generous responsiveness to religious and philosophical ideas, his capacity to evoke the most poignant of human circumstances vividly and honestly, and with a rare kind of humor, both gentle and teasing. No doubt that sensibility continues to attract the many young men and women who read him; it can be said that they read him out of a special and occasionally desperate kind of thirst and hunger which he has all along appreciated and, "a certain Samaritan" that he is, tried both to comprehend and assuage.