I contrasted Lord of the Rings with J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye the other day. It’s not a contrast that anyone other than I would make, and it’s all based on the fact that I loved the one and hated the other. In my post today I explore my dislike of the Salinger classic, which touches on the issue of fantasy that I have been discussing.
I was assigned the novel by Bill Goldfinch, my sophomore English teacher at the Sewanee Military Academy. Many of the other students, far less interested in literature than I was, loved it. But I felt sullied by it.
While I detested it, however, I still vividly remember certain scenes. I remember Holden Caulfield’s acne-pocked roommate (or maybe it’s a student down the hall). I remember his history teacher picking his nose while pretending not to. I remember Holden wearing a hunter’s cap and calling everyone a phony.
Above all I remember his trip to New York, which terrified me. I felt as though he was entering a war zone. I found particularly unpleasant the run-in he has with a prostitute and her pimp.
The books we hate tell us as much about ourselves as the books we love. Here are some insights I glean from that high school reaction.
What I disliked about Holden is what I disliked about myself as an adolescent. Holden is self conscious and feels like an outsider. He’s judgmental towards others but at the same time he wants to belong. He simultaneously is critical and envious of jocks. He doesn’t like himself. Nothing ever feels stable.
There were other similarities with my situation. Holden goes to a college prep boarding school, as did I. But because I was one of the day students, I felt that I wasn’t as mature as the boarders. After all, I was still living with my family. Holden going to New York was like my fellow students going to parties in Nashville or Chattanooga or visiting the Playboy club. I felt like an innocent.
I think I found the scene with the pimp and the prostitute distressing because of all my ambivalence about sex. It captured the way sex seemed alluring and forbidden and dirty all at once. Salinger contributes to the effect by setting the scene in a city hotel room, a threatening environment for a reader from small town Tennessee.
In short, the book reminded me of my inadequacies. I felt small and I blamed the book for this. Whereas Lord of the Rings made me feel big.
But I also felt like I was in flight from growing up. I associated Lord of the Rings with lost innocence and a rapidly receding childhood. Of course, Tolkien’s book is about the end of the age of magic as the elves leave Middle-earth. Humans have to step up and begin governing.
Interestingly enough, I wasn’t really misreading Catcher in the Rye. My trauma was Holden’s trauma as well. After all, he longs for the innocence of his little sister, which gives the book its title:
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
Of course, Holden feels that he too is a kid who is running off the cliff and he wants someone to catch him as well. He thinks he’s all alone, living without a net. So do most adolescents. So did I.
Addendum: My son Toby, who worked for a Baltimore tutoring center for a year, says that Catcher in the Rye remains a polarizing work among high schoolers. He says he could always predict which students would love it (the theater, angsty, self-searching, creative students) and which would hate it (the athletes, the “populars”). When I quiz my college students about their favorite books, Catcher comes in at #1 more than any other book.