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Sunday, August 05, 2012


First sentences: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it. 

Here are three interesting things about The Catcher in the Rye as a cultural icon. One, it's one of the most critically lauded books of the twentieth century, a regular feature on 'best books' lists, and generally considered a classic. Two, it's one of the most frequently challenged books of the twentieth century; if you want to send a socially conservative library patron into a tailspin, put it on your shelves. (On the other hand, if you want to annoy a culture vulture, leave it off. The librarian's lot is not a happy one.) Three, if you want to get someone really nervous about it, you can point out that assassins have been known to favour it - Mark Chapman had a worn copy in his possession, inscribed 'Dear Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement,' when he was arrested for murdering John Lennon, and John Bardo (murderer of Rebecca Shaeffer) and John Hinckley (attempted murderer of Ronald Reagan) had copies as well.

Now, this last probably merits least attention. Assassination is a copycat game, and the fact that Bardo and Hinckley had copies is probably more a sign that they were Chapman wannabes than anything about the actual book; Chapman himself may have been obsessed with the book, but since he thought that the best way to express his reaction to one artist was to murder another artist, his artistic judgement is pretty dismissable. The character is angry and alienated, so was he, and he was egotistical enough to think this was a reason to demand attention from the world by killing someone capable of creating things he couldn't; assassins of this kind are still with us, and they're basically nasty, selfish little losers who don't deserve our attention - and who are almost certainly imitated because we pay them attention, in fact, so let's mention the whole assassin reputation for the sake of completeness and then move on to talking about things that are actually worth talking about. The book spoke to Chapman because he was young and disaffected, because it spoke to a lot of people who were young and disaffected, most of them better people than him who dealt with their disaffection in less contemptible ways. (And even Chapman acknowledged that Holden Caulfield was not, in fact, violent, and brushed it off with 'But that's fiction.' Assassins find roles to play-act because they want them; they find rationalisations for murder for the same reason.) Disaffected people in general have responded to the book, and it's the disaffection that's the interesting thing.

First published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye is, among other things, a technically innovative book. Holden's direct, slangy, unpolished voice is very much a voice: a narrator with no Dickensian measure, as the first sentence points out, but with the inarticulacy of speech. Or rather, with the articulacy of speech: Holden's language is of the moment. He speaks of events in the past and describes how he felt at the time, but the emotion invoked is the emotion felt at the time of speaking. He's angry enough to call his childhood 'lousy', to brush it off in a single word, and as a result, all we can gather of this childhood is that he now doesn't want to talk about it. Pain in the past is implied, but conveyed through pain in the present - or at least restless impatience. 'I don't feel like going into it' is as much as he'll tell us right now: we have to stay with him now, to let him decide what he's going to share and when, or we won't learn anything at all. Holden is an aggressive narrator, tense, uncomfortable: the narrative fidgets and twitches, and we have to work out what has happened by watching his reactions to it as much as by hearing his account of it. Unless we take Holden entirely at his word - which is no tribute to Salinger's careful creation of character - the narrative requires us to think and to empathise in order to follow. Angry, unhelpful Holden demands our understanding of his feelings if we're going to understand his story.

At the same time, it's worth noting that this is not an 'overheard' narrative. Holden is not speaking to a third party, but writing to us; for all the speech-like rhythms and idiom, this is a written narrative. Since people generally do not write precisely the way they speak, hesitations and digressions and repetitions and all, the reader must accept a considerable degree of artifice: this is not a stage script, but a written imitation of spoken speech intended to stay on the page. (And Salinger was most reluctant to consider any dramatisations.) We are not in Holden's room, but in Holden's head, somewhere between heard and unheard: while he addresses us directly as a generic 'you', we are not any kind of character beyond that of Constant Reader. Holden is in a sanitarium following a breakdown of his health - 'I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy', he tells us on the first page - and on the last page he mentions that a psychiatrist has been interviewing him (so how much of his breakdown is physical and how much is mental is somewhat left to our judgement; we never see the point at which he's hospitalised). We are not, however, that psychiatrist, nor do we hear what Holden says to him. We are simply a 'you' that Holden chooses to talk to - grudgingly, almost, with a brusque insistence that he'll pick the subject, for reasons he is not open enough, either with us or with himself, to admit. While the speech is slangy, the device is highly literary.

Holden himself is far from illiterate, though. When he speaks of 'David Copperfield kind of crap', the book may be announcing that this is not your father's literature, but Holden is not saying that David Copperfield itself is crap - or at least, not crap enough to refuse to read. Holden begins the story, in fact, with his expulsion from an exclusive private school, an expulsion based on his grades, because through lack of effort, he has failed every subject except English. In other words, English (or rather literature) is the only subject that interests him. It's a reasonable guess that he's citing David Copperfield because he's read it; for a restless teenager, Holden has some pretty cultured reference points.

Actually David Copperfield doesn't say much about how David's parents 'were occupied and all' before his birth: David's birth is the beginning of his story, and he's every bit as self-involved as Holden. There's an element of irony in Salinger's choice: both are novels about misguided, aimless, effectively homeless young men who lack the maturity to locate a central point to their own lives. The difference is primarily that David eventually does manage to mature and settle down and Holden doesn't - but then, David describes his entire life, or at least up to middle age, and Holden only a couple of days. The focus is different: David's personality unfolds over time, Holden's is conveyed in a brief explosion of characteristic behaviour. David's story is about outgrowing immaturity; Holden's is about immaturity itself, a close-up study, interested in the fine details.

In effect, where Dickens is interested in immaturity as a lesson, a time of mistakes that the plot exists to correct, Salinger's focus is on immaturity for its own sake. This is the famous book of adolescence - or at least white, middle-class and above all male adolescence; reading the book as a teenager myself, it was hard to fully identify with a narrator who made generalisations like 'Women kill* me'; (Holden has been educated in all-male schools and states repeatedly that he doesn't understand how girls and women think, which hardly makes a girl think 'That's me!') - and it's because it doesn't treat adolescence as a diversion on the way to adulthood but as a state in itself, a state entirely real and long-lasting to those in the middle of it. And for many an angry teenager, what a relief to be treated as a real person, as a person whose emotional state deserves an actual entire book, not a mere digression. It should be remembered that 1951 was the very early days of the concept of 'teenage years', a time neither adult nor child but a state in itself. Nowadays 'young adult' is a whole literary genre, but in Salinger's time there was no such thing. Holden's disaffected, self-absorbed, impolite, uncertain narrative is, by its very existence, a statement that teenagers are people worth thinking about - even if they're wrong, or ill-mannered, or directionless, they are people whose feelings can be the subject of literature.

Holden's reference, then, is a hint to the reader that we should not expect the neat resolutions and convenient deaths that make David Copperfield's life conclude smoothly. David begins his life with the beginning of his life, as he puts it, but Holden is a young narrator and has neither the patience nor the perspective to go through David's neat summation of all his key experiences. All he can do is take a couple of significant days and throw them in our laps, muddling through them with no clear certainty himself why or how they're so significant. Again, it's a question of character implied rather than described: we have to work out why Holden, out of his whole life, is choosing to give us these particular days. We have to work with him, because he can't work with himself.

For how ungraciously does he ask for our ear! 'If you really want to hear about it,' he greets us, a character who doesn't beg for the Constant Reader's attention but snaps as if the new-found Constant Reader has been begging for his. The tone of that 'really' carries a delicate double meaning, though: on the one hand, it's reluctance: I'm not sure I want to talk about any of it, but if you insist... But on the other hand, there's an immediate demand for authenticity. Famously, Holden rails against 'phoniness' throughout the novel, and 'If you really want to hear about it' can be read another way: if you want to hear what's real about it. That's the slipperiness of grammar: that 'really' could equally apply to 'want' and to 'hear': it could suggest that our wants are importuning him, or that we need to really hear him, and that if we're going to do that, we have to follow his lead, because his choice of subject is part of his selfhood.

Which, of course, it is: what a novelist chooses to include and exclude is as much part of a novel as any specific choice of words. Salinger was unusual, particularly for his time, in choosing to say so much in what he excludes.

Likewise, it's an unusual narrator who begins a novel - and a very unusual novelist who can get away with beginning a novel - with a sentence that actually refuses to tell us things. 'I don't feel like going into it,' Holden says, and what do we hear in his voice? An irritable shrug, or a painful wince? The accurate answer is probably both: this is the skinless hypersensitivity of adolescence, desperately alive to every nuance of 'phoniness' or sadness in the world, and anger and distress are closely intermingled - as witness the way Holden enacts his grief over the death of his little brother by punching out windows until he permanently damages his hand.

But how does Salinger get away with a first sentence that refuses to to talk to us? The answer lies, once again, in implication. There's a lot present in a sentence that purports to stay silent on a subject: Holden's voice, for one thing, is immediately established, but what's also there is a whole list of what Holden doesn't like to consider, and we can learn a lot about a person by hearing what he wants to avoid. His origins, his childhood and his parents aren't just subjects he doesn't 'feel like going into'; they're subjects he can't face sparing even a couple of sentences apiece to sum up. There's something defensive about his opening: for a boy his age, doubtless his parents are important figures in his emotional landscape (whether he wants to admit it or not), and the fact that they can only be understood by their absence from his talk tells us something about them. He's uncomfortably aware that his parents had lives 'before they had me' - the necessary beginnings of adult understanding that makes adolescence so painful, the knowledge that the gods of our childhood are just people and the cosmos does not revolve around us - but not enough at peace with it to say anything about it. (He isn't even at peace enough to settle on a register: 'occupied and all' staggers from formal to phatic in a tiny space, like a drunk knocking around inside a lift.) He won't tell us where he was born, which tells us straight away how rootless he feels: bounced from boarding school to boarding school (at, we later learn, a time when the loss of his beloved brother would naturally make a boy need contact with and support from his remaining family), he has no community, no resting point, no home. There's a lot of misery and doubt in what Holden lists, and he lacks the security to do anything more than call 'crap' what he cannot calmly consider, and hurry along.

For such a non-statement, then, it's a crowded sentence. We are present in it, in our nebulous second-person state; Holden's unnameable home and unreconciled parents are there - and Holden is present, vitally present, his voice forthright yet evasive, wretched yet confrontational, too raw for mercy, from his very first breath.

*'Kill', in this context, means delight or surprise; it's one of the most frequent words in Holden's limited emotional vocabulary.


I was a *huge* Salinger fan during my (upper middle class white but female and Southern) adolescence, the type who always had a ratty paperback in her backpack, underlined with marginal notes, "How true, how TRUE!"

But even I could never stand CATCHER IN THE RYE -- Holden was too alien to me, in a way that the Glass family (originally lower-class Jewish Brooklynites) for example, never were.

I think, looking back, it's that confrontational hurriedness; all of Salinger's young people were as wretched and grieving, all as impatient with "phoniness", as I imagined myself. But we (Seymour and Franny and Zooey and Esme and Teddy and I) picked at it, worried at it like a dog with a chew toy, and believed the more misery we could dig out of the cracks of us, the more profound we were.

Holden is too raw and wounded for that; he hadn't the "spoons", to get all jargony, to flatter the reader in that way.

I should probably re-read CATCHER IN THE RYE from the far side of middle age, oughtn't I?

(Or perhaps not. I can't help but blame Salinger, and Holden Caulfield in particular, for the omnipresent slang-riddled first-person present-tense narration that is a the bane of so much YA literature now)
Would you say that kind of narration is inherently a bad thing? I mean, if it's done badly then no doubt it's tiresome, but wouldn't the same authors be doing something else badly if they weren't doing that? :-)

And yeah, I think The Catcher in the Rye (and it has a 'The' at the beginning! :-p Funny how often that gets left off) is a book that often does read better to older people if they aren't exactly the right kind of teenager. There's an interesting essay here - http://archive.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2004/may04_brooks.asp - that talks about the experience of reading it and loving it passionately when a teenager, but of course, it's from the point of view of a boy; being a girl makes Holden a much harder read, because he talks so much about how he doesn't really understand girls. A female narrator who talked about how she doesn't understand boys would probably ring the same bell with girl readers, but that's not what Holden is.

The author remarks that 'Teenagers are not especially exotic to [teenager readers]; they want characters who seem to be alive,' but if the character is someone who finds you entire gender somewhat exotic, well, it can take the distance of age for you to forgive them.

It does weary me a bit how often The Catcher in the Rye is classified as speaking for 'teenagers' when it has a narrator who tells you straight out that teenage girls frustrate and bewilder him. But I don't think there's an equivalent for female teenagers - not of equivalent standing, anyway. That article mentions To Kill A Mockingbird, but Scout has a brother and a male friend: leaving out boys entirely is a pretty good way to get yourself classified as a 'minor work'. I suppose the closest I can think of is Antonia White's The Lost Traveller, which is a very good account of a teenage girl, but it's a semi-autobiographical work about a particular girl rather than about girlhood in general.

None of which, of course, is the fault of The Catcher in the Rye itself; a teenage boy is a perfectly legitimate subject for a novel. I just sigh a bit when male critics tall about it as if it spoke for all teenagers.
It didn't resonate much with this male teenager (when I first met it) either; it felt too much like an adult trying to sound like one of the kids, something of which I was already sensitised in the early 1980s. It did have some effect on me, but I think mostly in a negative way; my adolescent rebellion was much more specifically focused and less "you just don't UNDERSTAND" than I believe is usual, and I continue to have a very low tolerance for writing that feels self-indulgent or patronising. (For clarity, I should say that this is about my reaction to the book rather than about the book in isolation; I know people who think it's wonderful, and I don't believe they're fools for thinking so.)
Out of interest, do you think an element of that migh have been the slang? From what I can gather, the slang Holden uses is accurate to his period, but of course sounds completely out of date by the 1980s.

I don't think - again, this is not to knock your reaction, just to talk about my opinion - that 'You just don't UNDERSTAND' is really what's going on with Holden. He has a specific reason to be bitterly unhappy, and you could make a case that his negativity about everything else is a symptom of that unhappiness (or perhaps clinical depression): his little brother has died, and his family have sent him away to boarding school rather than letting him stay home with his little sister, who he misses throughout the book and whose company gives him his only moments of happiness. That's pretty awful parenting, depriving a boy of his family when he's already lost more of it than he can bear, and you could argue that Holden's anger at every petty irritation that comes his way is simply natural grief coming out in little diverted streams because Holden lacks the maturity to understand and cope with his own feelings.

I don't think it's the only interpretation, but you can certainly make a case that Holden's distress has a specific cause. As Louis Menand remarked in the New Yorker*, 'Holden, after all, isn’t unhappy because he sees that people are phonies; he sees that people are phonies because he is unhappy. What makes his view of other people so cutting and his disappointment so unappeasable is the same thing that makes Hamlet’s feelings so cutting and unappeasable: his grief. Holden is meant, it’s true, to be a kind of intuitive moral genius. (So, presumably, is Hamlet.) But his sense that everything is worthless is just the normal feeling people have when someone they love dies. Life starts to seem a pathetically transparent attempt to trick them into forgetting about death; they lose their taste for it.'

It's one reading, anyway, and one that I personally think the text supports.


I don't think it was the language; I was already reading plenty of fiction from that time and earlier, and I tend to take books on their own terms when I can. I think it was more an eight deadly words problem: I didn't feel that I had any reason to be interested in Holden, to hope for his success (however that might be defined). I know I get this feeling more readily than many other people do.

I certainly think that your interpretation is supported by the text; Holden is probably harsher in his judgements of people than he might be if he weren't hurting, but his observations are still essentially valid.
Holden is probably harsher in his judgements of people than he might be if he weren't hurting, but his observations are still essentially valid.

I'm not sure I'd apply that assessment universally, actually; I'd say his judgements of people are variable and more coloured by circumstances than he's prepared to admit.

Take his date with Sally, for instance: he invites her out at short notice, acts erratically, and eventually asks her to run away with him and then insults her when she turns him down. He keeps saying that when she asks him not to 'shout' or 'scream' that he wasn't shouting or screaming, but do we have to believe him? He complains that 'there wasn't any sense trying to have an intelligent conversation': is it really an intelligent conversation to make a wild proposal to a girl you admit to yourself you don't even like that much? It reads to me more as if he's trying to at least partially justify a situation that's created by his own impulsivity - because after all, if your date acts that way out of nowhere, it's pretty scary and you can hardly be blamed for shutting down on him.

I'd say his judgements of people read as, well, depressive. He's highly attuned to the slightest hint of pretension or Philistinism, poverty or privilege, anything you can find fault with, but while his observations may be accurate, for them to be valid would, I'd say, require them to have a more complete understanding of people, both good and bad, than he has. It's not that he's necessarily incorrect about people's irritating habits, but he tends to generalise from them to an unreasonable degree.
I've always thought that the universal book for teenage girls was I CAPTURE THE CASTLE.

Not that males are missing from that narrative -- Cassandra's story is very much framed and shaped by her relationship to various men, from her father to her brother and surrogate brother, to her love interest Stephen.

But that reflects the female experience doesn't it? Despite what we would like, we still live in a patriarchy, where men are considered autonomous beings, and women are defined by our relationships with and for men. Part of the process of maturation for women is, unfortunately, coming to terms with that grim reality.

Of course, if we are to look for the classic adolescent novel of the autonomous female, there's always JANE EYRE. I don't know how many young women (myself included) felt that she should have given Rochester the heave-ho, and would have done just fine being herself...

And isn't it interesting how both of those novels about female coming of age are categorized as "romances" (which they very much are NOT) rather than bildungsroman?
Oh, and you're right about there being nothing intrinsically wrong about the first person present tense; it's just my irritability showing after reading a collection of YA dystopian short stories and *every*single*one* used either first person present or tight third present.

After a while it begins to feel like a cheap device to create "identification" with the main character, instead of bothering to, you know, create a character.

Not to mention the omnipresent "futuristic" argot, no, you are not Anthony Burgess, shut up.

Speaking of which, would you consider having a go at the first sentence (first two sentences, I guess) of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE? Or is it impossible to talk about without talking about the film.

(Note: verification word -- "geekshor". Yes'm, I'm afraid I shor am.)
Speaking of which, would you consider having a go at the first sentence (first two sentences, I guess) of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE? Or is it impossible to talk about without talking about the film.

I've actually been planning to have a go there, so yes, definitely. I haven't decided quite how I'll go about it yet, but it's on my list. Next up is In Cold Blood, which should appear next week, but I'll do A Clockwork Orange after that. :-)
I thought I left a brief comment this morning, but I don't see it. Have I been spam-trapped, betrayed by blogger, or lied to by my own early-morning fingers?
I see no sign of it, I'm afraid; sorry.
Sigh. It's not the first time; blogger and I haven't been getting along well. Maybe I think the captcha works when it doesn't?

Nothing important, anyway; just something about reading Catcher as a teen, and finding it interesting but alien. Like hapax, I was more at home among the Glasses.

And as a teen, I read the book as "Adult phonies don't understand!" When I re-read it as the parent of a teen, I thought "of course the kid has good reason to be unhappy and angry, and why didn't anyone notice?" And I felt sorry for Holden's mother, in the brief glimpses we get of her.

I reread the book when my daughter was assigned it for one of her English classes. When it's not forbidden, it's compulsory, I suppose.
Cud it be a murder mystery? Many alibis estabished..man roaming rd speaking to kids. Why did he not come on Wednesday? Why sneak about? Problem: The girl from the orphanage is the only girl that he seems comfortable with and it is an inner struggle cause he really would like to be the catcher in the rye. He said it in another book..."she understands" way above the normal adult. Even rich girls with copyrights can end up in an orphanage. And, she is most willing to give "everything" from the hand for him to be happy. And, then there is the affection. Paul Newman knows how to spin a tale.
The unpleasant smell at the entrance? Perhaps, a dead mouse rotting away. Perhaps, a cadaver, as posted.??? Get drunk...very, very, very, very, very, very, very drunk.
It's most unfortunate that the book did not give closure...maybe a footnote at the end after a couple of unprinted page that issued in with the other "The End". Sort of like, Mrs. Dickstein played nervously with her generous cup of tea as the maid sat and fidgeted with an almost soiled handkerchief in her closed fist. "I'm going out to play now," signed Pheobe. Pheobe stops most quietly at the kitchen door. "I heard Holden had a dreadful fall last night. Was he hurt badly?"
"Oh, Rhoda, Holden is dead."
"That's too bad. I rather liked him.'
Pheobe starred in somber quietness...curtsied and edged out backwards...closing the door ever so quietly.
I know...Rhoda and Pheobe. Rhoda Penmark from "The Bad Seed" about a child that likes flashy things and like adults who like "flashy" things does not have a conscience, rite? Holden could play the man seeking for the same affection, just older...in a way. You see, left unsaid, in "The Bad Seed" Rhoda is a transvesite. He/she dresses just like Pheobe hoping to be seen as the same girl. It just won't do for Pheobe to die so quickly, after all, friends are hard to find. It's a Hollywood thing. Okay? That might be pressing things to far. Unfortunately, Mr. March died before disclosure, rite? The ending of, "Catcher in the Rye" is just missing and the audience is still asking, the whys? It is just most strange that adults have the opinion that they can lie, murder and still but if a child would do the same to defend oneself or one's perceived loved ones, it is completely and utterly, "outrageous". Even if one was to find Pheobe outside a window with broken bones in a suicide attempt with daddy's hat in hand, the audience will never accept it. Children that want to be good must survive. It's a Jesus thing, I'm sure of it. Let's just leave some of it out.
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