I read “The Catcher in the Rye” when I was 18, and was disturbed by it. This review by Spencer J. Quinn of J.D. Salinger’s famous novel goes some way in enabling me to verbalise what exactly it was that disturbed me.
Literature can shape the way we look at the world — even without our knowing it, or being beware of the specific literature in question. A Bible verse shared during a church service or a few lines of poetry offered in a classroom can have this effect. With novels, well-drawn characters can stick with us until we view life through their fictional eyes. I imagine Ernest Hemingway had this in mind when he claimed that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” There is a little of Huck Finn in all of us, in other words.
By the 1960s, however, Huck Finn had been largely replaced by Holden Caulfield in the American imagination. Despite what an original character Holden is and how deftly author J. D. Salinger developed him in the 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, that’s hardly a good thing.
Holden Caulfield is indeed a wonderful, unforgettable character. But then why is The Catcher in the Rye only three-quarters of a great novel? Why is it bad that Holden has replaced Huck as the character through which so many Americans see their world?
None of this would be to the detriment of the novel had Salinger not molded Holden as the poster boy for revenge-minded alienated youth. Holden is treated so sympathetically by Salinger, especially at the end, that the reader is constantly tempted to view life through Holden’s jaundiced eyes — as if it’s the world that’s at fault, not Holden. This is dangerous. Given the connection between The Catcher in the Rye and John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, and others like him, yes, this is dangerous. Huck Finn may have viewed himself as an outlaw for helping Jim escape slavery, but he never saw himself as a predator constantly at odds with most of humanity the way Holden Caulfield seems to be at times.
What further enables the psychopath-as-hero reading of The Catcher in the Rye is the fact that so little is nice in Holden’s world. So much of it is dingy, seedy, or vomity, and, boy, does Holden Caulfield love dwelling on that. Other than during his dreamy walk through the museum, Holden fixates on the ugly and the revolting in New York City, as if that’s all there is. And his penchant for exaggeration doesn’t help. A hotel lobby smells like “50 million dead cigars.” Walking down steps to the sidewalk, he nearly breaks his neck over “10 million garbage pails.”
Even worse, Salinger normalizes sexual perversion. In a hotel Holden finds “a few pimpy-looking guys, and a few whory-looking blondes.” Through the open windows of his hotel, he sees a man trying on women’s clothing and a drunken couple squirting alcohol at each other from their mouths. “The hotel was lousy with perverts,” he states.
Most tragically, when a man Holden admires touches him inappropriately and forces him to flee into the night, Holden wasn’t even terribly surprised. He admits that “perverty” things like that have happened to him “about twenty times” before. Rounding that down to the more accurate-sounding once or twice, we still have the normalcy of perversion. It’s as if most American boys in Salinger’s world are forced to deal with unwelcome come-ons from grown men.
Who wouldn’t want to shoot up a world like that?
With such a splendid character as Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye could have been a much greater contribution to Western literature. Salinger only needed to tone down the murder in Holden’s heart and the perversion in Holden’s world. Instead, however, he was happy to paint the world to be a darker place than it really is, and make it cool to hate your fellow man.