Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
The first time I read The Catcher in the Rye, I didn’t know that Holden Caulfield had a nervous breakdown.
I was sixteen, and to me, Holden was a revelation. He may have been a fictional character created decades before my time, but something about his manic rants, his aimless wanderings, the lost boy with the false bravado, resonated with me. When I read Catcher, I felt like someone really got me, like there was someone in the world who understood what I was going through. It had been three years since my family was fractured by my father’s death. I was constantly at odds with my mother. I didn’t have many friends, and I was always a little bit suspicious that the ones I had hid ulterior motives for the way they treated me. I hated the hypocrisy of the world, felt constantly torn between idealism and cynicism. I spent most of my time watching TV or reading books and pretending myself inside, always imagining myself as someone else. I was struggling with my beliefs. I was struggling with everything.
I may have been female, and I may have been decades removed from Holden’s world, but I was Holden. I didn’t know he was having a breakdown, because I was feeling all the same things. I didn’t know he was having a breakdown, because he was just like me.
So when I found out that J.D. Salinger, the enigmatic author of Catcher, had died, I felt bereft. Salinger may have published his last work decades before I was born, and he may have lived the last years of his life a virtual recluse, but I always hoped against hope that maybe he would give more of himself to the world one day, that maybe we’d see more of his work.
Of course, the irony of Salinger’s death is that we may finally be able to do just that. The rumor was that Salinger had kept writing all these years but refused to publish. So maybe in a few months or a few years, there will be a “new” Salinger novel on the shelves–of course, completely ignoring the fact that this was exactly what Salinger spent most of his life trying to avoid. And this new novel will probably have a foreword by some distinguished academian, someone who excels in seeing the picture but missing the point. And this foreword will talk about Catcher, calling it one of the seminal works of the 20th century. It will talk about how Holden is representative of the postwar anxiety in society, or the conflict between America’s idealistic spirit and its capitalistic drive. It’ll be intelligent, and erudite, and total bullshit. It will be the “fuck you” on Salinger’s gravestone. Because I don’t think Catcher was ever meant to be symbolic of any of that, or anything, really; it was just the story of one kid just like me, running around New York City, trying to figure out where the hell he belongs.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to Holden. I’d like to think that he turned out all right in the end, that he maintained his childlike idealism into his adult years and lived life on his own terms. Of course, if Salinger based Holden on himself, and the rumors about Salinger are true–that his eccentricities and reclusive tendencies rivaled those of Howard Hughes–then that may not be the case. But maybe that misses the bigger picture. Just knowing that there was someone out there who got what I was going through helped me get through my teenage years relatively unscathed. If Salinger could not preserve his own well-being, his intelligent, funny, sensitive rendering of Holden Caulfield helped millions of teenagers–me included–preserve theirs.
In chapter three of Catcher, Salinger wrote, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” And that’s how I felt about Salinger. Even into my adult years, a decade after the first time I read Holden’s story, just knowing that Salinger was out there, somewhere, was always a comfort to me.
And now he’s gone. Maybe, in his death, we will finally be honored by seeing more of his work, by seeing what had been going on in his head for the last four and a half decades–and I can’t pretend that idea doesn’t appeal to me. But this is, honestly, the first time a celebrity death has gotten to me like this. Somehow, the world just seems like a sadder, scarier place without the man who basically wrote an entire book contemplating where the ducks in Central Park go during the winter. And now we’ll never know.