Friday, January 29, 2010

"The greatest mind ever to stay in prep school": On Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye

The cover illustration for the September 15, 1961 edition of Time, by Robert Vickrey. Image found here.

The quote in the title is widely attributed to Norman Mailer. No matter who said it, though, to my mind it's among the better one-sentence assessments of a writer's abilities that you're likely to find. Salinger is one of that impressive list of American writers who lived a long time but wrote little but what they did write was highly regarded and who, for whatever reason, seemed to reach a wall they could or would not write their way past. Ralph Ellison (whose first novel, Invisible Man, is the sort of thing that's so good that it's completely understandable that his second novel remained uncompleted and wasn't published till after he died) is perhaps the most significant member of that list, but others are Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Truman Capote (no book-length work after In Cold Blood), Henry Roth (his 1934 novel Call It Sleep was highly regarded and then forgotten in part because nothing else appeared by him until sixty years later with his Mercy of a Rude Stream tetralogy (two of which were published before he died). In Ellison's defense, he lost his manuscript (about ten years' worth of labor) in a house fire (in those stone-age days before thumb drives) and so had to re-write it; who knows about Harper Lee--she will talk about anything else, I've heard, except her work or that one marvelous novel; the film Capote implicitly argues that the experience of researching and writing In Cold Blood wrecked Capote emotionally; Roth suffered from depression but also, for a very long time, simply abandoned writing.

But Salinger? There had been rumors early in the just-completed decade that Salinger had a novel coming out, and in the obituary I read yesterday, he was quoted as saying that he wrote all the time for his own pleasure; but I think, personally, Mailer's one-off is on to something: Salinger became an old man, but he just didn't grow (up) as a writer. Holden Caufield is, for many, many people, the mid-twentieth-century voice of teenage angst, and that is indeed something on which to hang one's reputational hat. But I wish all those people outraged by Catcher's "goddamn"'s back in the day had engaged in some Fourth-Stage Literary Criticism and realized something pretty basic about the Literature/Life dynamic: Caufield will always be a teenager, and the teenager that he is; the teenagers reading about him, one hopes, will not.

In case you're interested, below the fold I have a little story about my first and only experience reading Catcher. It's worth telling because it's not the usual experience-reading-Catcher story: I was also teaching it to some college students. There's also some further yammering.

I didn't choose to teach it. Here's what happened: At my previous school, one of my colleagues resigned his position one summer to take on a job as a newspaper editor in his home state of Missouri. He'd already established the book list for the class (20th Century American Literature) and the books had been ordered. The class was going to make. And it was in my field. The chair asked me to take it on, and I agreed.

I wasn't entirely sure why my colleague had selected it, but I was glad to see Catcher on the reading list because it would give me a reason to get around to reading it. Of course, while I was growing up--I remember first hearing about it via whispered tones in grade school--it had for most all adolescents my age something of a talismanic quality because it had a reputation as one of those books adults thought kids shouldn't be reading. Hearing talk about it was a lot like hearing talk about sex: the subject was something magical and forbidden that more of us pretended to know something about than actually did and, in any event, was surely every bit as good as, if not better than, everyone said it was.

Sorry, Salinger-philes: Sex is better than The Catcher in the Rye.

Where were we . . . . ?

Oh, yes--I remember: Lots of books have reputations that precede them and Catcher is surely one of them, for the reasons above and for others as well. So, as I read it and made notes for teaching it, that reputation became for me part of what I wanted to talk about. That, in fact, became more interesting for me than the novel as a whole. Parts of it remain quite vivid--in particular, Holden's hiring the prostitute and only talking with her, thus putting a poignant spin on the joke my fellow male high-schoolers had thought was just the funniest thing:

"What's a four-letter word ending in 'k' that means 'intercourse'?"


In fact, that joke, now that I think about it, is very like how Catcher in the Rye read for me and, I suspect, for my students as well. It teases and tempts with the promise of hearing something true and/but forbidden, but it ends up telling us something true and, well, something all of us who live long enough will go through, being broadened in the meantime--something not forbidden but, on the contrary, crucial to know and yet, in its way, a bit ordinary as well. Some of my students, good Southern Baptists, were (or pretended to be) a bit taken aback by the language, but as I pointed out in the instance of Holden's boarding-school friend, who is Jewish and whose name escapes me just now, "Quit talking about my goddamned religion," they don't really hear what they are saying--which makes that particular instance, for me, not shocking but genuinely funny in its oxymoronic quality. It's an adjective, but none of Caufiled's peers see it as really describing anything--and certainly not in the word's comdemnatory sense. It's just something kids say.

It's that sort of thing that Salinger gets exactly right in his novel. Caufield--not his language but his tone--sounds just like a teenager. Anyone wanting some lessons in how to write young-adult fiction needs to read this novel. But despite his moments when he sees through the phoniness of adults and despite his dream in which he keeps kids in the rye field from running off the cliff by catching them before they reach the edge, Holden never sees what might be genuine about adult experience; he doesn't know, the cliff aside, what he's protecting the children from. He remains frozen in adolescence. He never seems to glimpse what it might mean, for him, to grow up.

As I started thinking about this post, I found myself thinking about another famous American novel, very controversial as well, whose narrator is an adolescent boy, likewise confronted by and dismissive of phoniness and whose first name, coincidentally, begins with an "H": The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One of my students this semester asked me if there was a novel I could read over and over again, and I chose Huckleberry Finn. As many times as I have read it, I still find myself getting frustrated and even angry with the title character, as he makes me laugh, as I see his growing awareness and epiphany regarding Jim and then, in the space of a few hours in the novel's time, reverting to going along with Tom Sawyer's playing Count of Monte Cristo with Jim's freedom once Tom shows up at the Phelps place in the last quarter of the novel. Why, if he were my kid . . . , I think. And that's it: Huck is our kid (those of us with teenagers), knowing right from wrong and having a kind of wisdom about people and the way things are screwed up and the way things should be that we wish we had when we were that age, and yet . . . (you parents can fill in that ellipsis as well as I can). I remember not feeling that frustration with Holden while reading The Catcher in the Rye; I felt sad for him, even pity, but not frustration. He condemns what he sees, but he doesn't really know. Huck, however partially and however imperfectly he may act as a result, knows.

So, as Huck plans to light out for the territory on the novel's final page, my understanding of that is not that he seeks to preserve as best he can the illusions of adolescence (Tom's "howling adventures amongst the Indians") but precisely to escape them--he wants to head out there "ahead of the rest." (True, Aunt Polly's sivilizing (note the serpentine shape of that "s") looms, but he wants even to leave Tom and Jim behind.) He knows, in other words, whereof he speaks or, rather, acts against as he seeks to protect himself. He has seen a boy his age try to kill others and be killed over something the cause of which the people shooting at each other can't even remember: A transcendant phoniness if there ever was one. Not meaning to disparage Holden's (legitimate) critique of phoniness, but: What, really, does Holden know by comparison? And, given how the novel ends, how will Holden ever know?

In his (very smart and very engaging) book, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers, Hugh Kenner says of Flann O'Brien (who'd be on the Irish version of that list of American writers above) and (after winning some fame for his best-known novel, The Third Policeman) his fateful choice (Kenner's judgment) to write a thrice-weekly newspaper column for the Irish Times for 26 years, "A great future lay behind him." That's very much like the way I think of Salinger and why I feel some sadness at his passing.

UPDATE: You could have spared yourselves a whole lot of reading to getn pretty much the same take on Salinger by visiting Randall's place . . .


R. Sherman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amy said...

He was self-conscious. When he became famous he became so self-conscious, so horribly aware of what people were thinking and expecting that he could no longer write. I think, anyway. He couldn't be what people wanted him to be. I think he has volumes of the Glass family adventures hidden in the walls of his NH house. I like Nine Stories best. My sister posted on her Facebook status late yesterday: "A bad day for bananafish."

kato said...

"Catcher," to me, is a book that has to be read at the right time in your life. It doesn't have the same effect the 2nd or 3rd time reading it. If the timing is right, it becomes more than a life experience could ever provide. -k

R. Sherman said...

Earlier Comment Removed Because Of Excessive Ranting Contained Therein.

Thanks for the plug.

I wonder whether I would have thought the novel better, had I not been subjected to all the press telling me how great/salacious/meaningful it was.

As for Holden v. Huck, thanks for the comparison/contrast. Not to brown-nose the professor, but the problem with Holden, as opposed to the classic Bildungsroman, is that he doesn't get it, or at least seems not to. There's no epiphany. He walks around New York, freaks out, goes to hospital, then back to school. What did he learn? He certainly didn't head out west "ahead of everybody else." Rather, it's back to the buddies he misses.