Holden: Why We Still Need Him

Photo by Rob Tol on Unsplash

In a recent interview in the New York Times Book Review, George Will was asked to name an overrated book. He answered, “The Catcher in the Rye, which, like Holden Caulfield, should have been strangled in the cradle. Just what the world does not need: another sullen adolescent.”

Over the years, Catcher has had its detractors. A 2009 Times story suggested that the book might be dated. One English teacher commented, “The alienated teenager has lost much of his novelty,” and one 15-year-old boy said, “Oh, we all hated Holden in my class. We just wanted to tell him, ‘Shut up and take your Prozac.’ ”

That depresses the hell out of me.

I have read the novel about twenty-five times, twenty in the context of teaching it, and I see Holden as a soul warrior. His method of fighting may be tragi-comically inept, but his cause is noble. His heroism, like Hamlet’s, is largely internal, consisting more of how he thinks than what he does. The reader’s experience is to listen to those thoughts, and — to paraphrase Nietzsche — to listen to some battles is also to fight them.

Holden does not find it silly that his friend Jane, when she plays checkers, leaves her kings in the back row. He is charmed by it, even though she will never win the game.

The game: it’s an important phrase in Catcher. Holden’s headmaster tells him that “Life is a game” and he must “play it according to the rules.” No doubt, rules are important. They make the trains run on time and the corporations turn a profit. But abundant historical examples, from racial segregation to internment camps, from child labor to toxic pollution, remind us that people need to question the rules by which the game is played. Catcher’s examples are small, such Jane’s liking the look of her kings in the back row, but their lesson is large. We need to ask whether the rules of our games enhance our humanity or stunt it.

When Holden noticed a former headmaster fawning over certain parents and ignoring others — no doubt part of the game — he concludes, “I can’t stand that stuff.” But people do stand it, and headmasters still practice it. The complex games — and their rules — by which wealth is made and distributed in our society are a form of violence. “Goddamn money,” Holden says, “It always ends up making you blue as hell.”

Holden feels repulsed by Ernie, the successful show-off piano player who has mastered the game. Holden and his late brother Allie loved the kettle drummer for his humble commitment to his craft. When gets to bang the drum, which isn’t often, he does it “nice and sweet.”

When Allie died, Holden broke out the windows in the family station wagon with his fist and his parents sent him to a psychiatrist. By the rules of how to express grief, breaking windows is the act of a misfit. But a character in another Salinger novel quotes this gem from Sappho: Delicate Adonis is dying, Cytherea, what shall we do? Beat your breasts, maidens, and rend you tunics. Or in Holden’s idiom, break out the windows of the station wagon. What are we to do about our feelings? First, feel them. Fully, whether the rules allow it or not. All else comes later. Hurt, gone unexpressed, creates more hurt.

Dedicated to winning the game, we sometimes lack the patience to listen to those who feel like ducks whose pond has frozen over or those who feel that they are about to disappear. We believe in managing problems — or solving them with a new app. As if people are not souls but machines needing repair, we say, “Shut up and take your Prozac.”

I’ve always thought “shut up” is one of the worst things that can be said to a person. Even when Holden is at his worst, his words, like nearly everyone’s, contain some gold, and it can be discovered for one is willing to dig, sift, and weigh. You may want to hold off on strangling Holden, George Will. A common quality shared by Holden’s villains is that they don’t listen.

In the years I taught Catcher, some students were initially dismissive of Holden. But simple questions made them think: Did they know any Stradlaters? Did they know any phonies? Did they ever weary from playing the game? At the moment Holden imagines the young prostitute buying the dress, has he not moved beyond seeing her as an object to empathizing with her as a subject? Students began to see that their initial perception of Holden as a misfit was true — literally. He is a miss-fit. By not fitting into his world, he draws his reader’s attention to world, to the rough edges, sharp corners, and cold rules that we habitually accept. But is acceptance the best strategy for what we find unacceptable? If it becomes our automatic response, don’t we lose our courage and thus our hearts?

Does the voice of a rich, white, teenage boy from 1951 still speak to people? It does. When I taught Catcher in a college course at San Quentin prison, one of my students came into class one night looking especially pensive. Then he looked up and said of Holden in amazement, “You know, I’m like this dude.” Another had read the novel through three times by the next class.

That’s why Catcher stands the test of time, that essential criterion for a classic. While Holden’s sensibility may take an adolescent form, it has a universally human content — as do the words of all adolescents. You just have to listen deeply. That’s why I don’t like phrases like “sullen adolescent” and “teen angst.” They reduce real feelings to unreal labels. They are tool for not listening.

While some of Holden’s slang has passed out of fashion, the sentences still sing in a rhythm all their own, subverting the game in the name of something higher. That higher cause is simply a morality that insists people should be treated as humans and not as tools for the rules of a game. Holden’s complaints — against his headmaster, his teachers, his peers, and various adults — are a catalog of infractions of the Golden Rule. What Catcher seems to hope is that readers will swim with the current of Holden’s voice and move toward greater empathy and authenticity, resisting the worship of the golden calf.

In our time of cruel inequalities, when we don’t always listen well to one another, and when we have a Stradlater in the White House, I don’t think Holden is dated. I believe we need him more than ever.

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