Catcher in the Rye is the most overrated novel in the history of American literature. I first read it at age nineteen because everyone was raving about it, and remember thinking, what is the big deal? I re-read it at age thirty when I was studying the novel as a matter of education and wondered, why is this supposed to be good? I recently read it once more (and I hope for the last time) and my reaction has not changed dramatically. Obviously, I am missing something.
Catcher in the Rye was recently rated the number one must-read novel in a poll taken of people over fifty years of age. It ranked higher than Lolita, Sophie’s Choice, and To Kill a Mockingbird, to name three worthies. I understand it continues to sell 250,000 copies a year all over the world even though its author is now dead. When he was alive, Salinger, a noted recluse, received huge numbers of letters from people worldwide praising his novel, telling him their problems, and asking for his advice. He didn’t care. He didn’t even read the letters.
The novel, originally published in 1951, is about Holden Caulfield, a neurotic teenager who drops out of a high-priced prep school (his father is a corporate attorney and makes big money) and wanders around New York City with no real direction, chatting with people, making up lies, and being, in general, obnoxious. “Goddamn” is his favorite word, second to “phonies.” He considers practically everybody but himself to be a phony. During his several-day romp he manages to get punched in the stomach by a pimp, makes a small donation that he can’t afford to a couple of nuns, visits several bars, and eventually he sneaks home to visit his sister. He discusses with her starting a new life in Colorado on a horse ranch despite the fact that he can’t ride a horse, then visits an old teacher of his who ends up touching Holden inappropriately while Holden is sleeping on the man’s couch. He bolts out of the house and goes to Grand Central Station where he is keeping his luggage, then wanders over to his sister’s school and meets her for lunch after briefly visiting a nearby museum. The book ends with his watching his sister ride a horse on a carousel, after which he declares he doesn’t know what his future has in store for him. Apparently he ends up in some sort of hospital (mental?), although it isn’t clear.
J. D. Salinger was born in 1919, was involved in the Second World War, and became famous at a relatively young age. His entire fame as of this writing rests on the production of four books: Catcher in the Rye, a novel, Nine Stories, fiction, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction, which contains two novellas, and Franny and Zooey, a short story and novella. The only author I can think of who is famous for the production of less is Harper Lee. Salinger, a prickly character at best, got annoyed quickly from his rapidly rising fame (be careful of what you wish for, you might get it), and eventually established a hermit-like existence in Cornish, New Hampshire, guarding at all costs his privacy. He married four times, and was the recipient of several scathing memoirs, one of the more interesting being by his own daughter, Margaret Salinger, entitled Dream Catcher. In it she essentially describes her father as being temperamental, narcissistic, dictatorial, and, in general, a lousy father. If I disliked Salinger and his novel before I read her memoir, she did nothing to alter my opinion.
A more recent book about him is My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff, a very pleasant and readable memoir about the one year she spent in New York working at the literary agency that handled—who else?—J. D. Salinger. She typed up dictation, answered the public’s letters to Salinger, and noted that everyone at the agency spoke of him in hushed tones as though he were a god. When she actually talked to the man by phone and met him in person, she found him to be quite pleasant, although a bit dingy in the head—age and impaired hearing were beginning to take their toll. She got around to reading his books for the first time and here she begins to wax eloquent. “It goes without saying, I suppose, that I now understood why the fans wrote to him, not just wrote to him but confided in him, confided in him with such urgency, with such empathy and compassion, with such confession. Because the experience of reading a Salinger story is less like reading a short story and more like having Salinger himself whisper his accounts into your ear. The world he creates is palpably real and terrifically heightened, as if he walked the earth with his nerve endings exposed. To read Salinger is to engage in an act of such intimacy that it, at times, makes you uncomfortable. In Salinger, characters don’t sit around contemplating suicide. They pick up guns and shoot themselves in the head. All through the weekend, even as I ripped through his entire oeuvre, I kept having to put the books down and breathe. He shows us his characters at their most bald, bares their most private thoughts, most telling actions. It’s almost too much. Almost.”
So there you have it, the other side of the coin, so to speak. Reading this is to get an idea of why people worship the man and his work. Rakoff is especially entranced with Franny of Franny and Zooey. “Maybe you, like me, identified so strongly with Franny Glass, upon first reading, that you wondered if Salinger had somehow—through some sort of bizarre, science-fiction–style maneuver—tunneled into your brain. Or maybe you, like me, found yourself sobbing with recognition, with relief, that there was someone else who had felt such exhaustion, such despair, such frustration with everything, everyone, including yourself, your inability to be properly nice to your well-intentioned father, or your inexplicable ability to shred the heart of the man who loves you most. Someone else who was trying to figure out how to live in this world.”
No, honey, I didn’t. I didn’t get that reaction when I read the story at your age and I don’t get it now. I’m trying to figure out how to live in this world, but certainly I don’t get any hints from Franny, or any other of Salinger’s works. I found the story to be about two pretentious college students having a boring conversation over lunch. Not much else. Your reaction is apparently the status quo, however, not mine.
I am not, I should clarify, saying that I think Catcher is a bad book, or that Salinger is a bad writer. On the contrary. The book is a very good depiction of a troubled teenager struggling to find himself. He’s sort of smart and humorous, but he also lies a lot and is thoroughly, as I have opined before, obnoxious. How people around the world identify with this character truly befuddles me. I should point out that the writing is very good and the book is certainly funny in parts. But nothing happens! Is it really fruitful to read two hundred and seventy-seven pages of a seventeen-year-old dingbat wandering aimlessly through New York City having idle and meaningless conversations with a variety of people? There is nothing profound in what anyone says. And this is great literature? No, I think not. No. A thousand times no.
Of course, this is the de rigeur of modern day literature: well written nonsense about middle class white people doing essentially nothing. Read any so-called high classed literary journal today if you don’t believe me. I don’t think Salinger created this trend but apparently he contributed to it, and I cast back nostalgically to the splendid era when great writers like Shaw, Fitzgerald, and Maugham published fiction to the reading public that actually contained a story. It has been rumored that Salinger was actively writing to the end of his life and that the hidden works will be revealed in all their resplendent glory in the not-too-distant future. God help me. Then I’ll be forced to hear the critics wax eloquently about this great man’s genius again.