As I discovered myself to be under the weather this holiday season, I proceeded to rest my weary bones; this culminated in the selection of an easier read which found its way to my bookshelf before finding my fingers and will certainly find its way back to that bookshelf in a mere matter of minutes to not be picked up again. Perhaps due to the difficulties that come with a slight flue or because the phrase “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” found its way into the first sentence of the novel, I was wholly unable to enjoy J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Much like M.T. Anderson’s Feed, I felt as if the argument being made was something much needed even for our time today, the book being written somewhere in the mid 1940s. However good an argument or story, I still value quality writing over both and thus concluded to dislike the novel. As the great Bill Cosby said in a round about way, and I paraphrase, “You can cook me a ribeye steak, but if you give it to me on a trashcan lid, I’m not going to eat it.” In this same way, Salinger wrote an amazing novel in a dreadful way partly because he had to represent a first person narrator who was himself a poor story teller. We cannot fault Salinger for this. If anything we can only get on to him for creating such a person. With this lengthy disclaimer out of the way, I will proceed to comment on the positive elements of the novel as I found them.
Salinger’s classic chronicles about two full days of the wanderings of 16 year-old Holden Caulfield who not only wanders his way through the novel but apparently does so through life. The novel picks up in the middle of the action in which Holden is going to be kicked out of his school for failing grades. Knowing this, Holden ditches his school early, leaving Saturday evening he decides he will hang out in a hotel in New York for a few days and return home Wednesday, the day he was originally supposed to come home. After his great escape, Holden literally wanders from one thing to the next as if he decides to do something by mere whim and fancy without any sort of rational thought entering his head. The end of the novel has him wrestle with this fanciful idea of heading out west instead of returning home, but in the end, perhaps out of love for his little sister, Holden heads home. In typical 20th century fashion, the novel’s ending is as ambiguous as its main character, and we are left pondering what Holden will end up becoming in the end.
This novel had two major forces working against its protagonist: Anti-Intellectualism (or intellectual apathy/laziness) and persons giving Holden advice. I will discuss the latter first. Advisers function in this novel both positively and negatively, and while we cannot trust this narrator without caution, he certainly is not the 16 year-old kid who is pointing a finger of blame at any one person in particular. Better, he points blame at everything and resolves to hate everything, and this hate is often intermingled with flashes of respect and maybe even love. When Holden meets with his sick teacher at the beginning of the novel and another near the end, we do not come away with any sort of feeling that he feels they are at fault for his current situation. Yet after his initial meeting with Mr. Spencer, we see clearly a negative way to handle the situation when he insults Holden’s intelligence by the ever so uplifting statement that “I’d like to put some sense in that head of yours, boy. I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to help you, if I can.” Spencer has Holden revisit a very poor essay he wrote for him and then goes on to justify the fact that he failed him, focusing primarily on Holden’s past failures and offering little, if any, advice for his future. At least Holden still somewhat respects his old teacher.
A different technique is used at the end of the novel when Holden visits his past English teacher, Mr. Antolini. Antolini certainly touches on Holden’s past mistakes, but he does not stop there. He warns him about a possible disastrous future.
This fall I think you’re riding for–it’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn’t permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn’t supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave it up before they ever really even got started.
He then begins to transition to an alternative that Holden can take in life, one that can lead to him expanding his mind.
“I think that one of these days… you’re going to have to find out where you want to go. And then you’ve got to start going there. But immediately. You can’t afford to lose a minute. Not you… Educated and scholarly men… tend to leave infinitely more valuable records behind them than men who are merely brilliant and creative… Nine times out of ten they have more humility than the unscholarly thinker… Something else an academic education will do for you. If you go along with it any considerable distance, it’ll begin to give you and idea what size mind you have.”
While Mr. Spencer may have been just in his intentions in helping Holden better his life, its clear that he was obviously dwelling too much on past failures and not enough on changing the future. Whether it be educators, parents, or even peers, the tendency is to dwell too much on our past failures. The failings appear to have stacked up so high they are too numerous or too grand to overcome. But much like in Holden’s case with Mr. Antolini, it usually is positive advise concerning what we are to do next that will goad us on to great changes.
Though Mr. Antolini certainly gave great advice, it fell short and failed to address the core of Holden’s issues: Apathy towards life and laziness toward thought. I suppose I could write about the more obvious issue of hate that finds its way into nearly every page of the book. Holden hates everything, and this is the problem brought to his attention at novel’s end by his little sister Phoebe. His family is the only thing in the novel he holds out on when it comes to hate, yet even at the very end he confesses to hating his sister, the hero of the story, stating he “almost hated her. [He thought he] hated her most because she wouldn’t be in that play any more if she went away with [him].” I could then write about how Holden desperately needed to fill his life with love, but this merely cleans the wound, it doesn’t fix the problem. Hate is rarely the first feeling one has regarding a person or idea such as intellectualism. Hate must come from another emotion first, and often that emotion will be apathy. We are, naturally, apathetic towards everything we encounter for the first time with no basis for loving or hating whatever that thing may be. The usual tendency is for us to move slightly (perhaps timidly even) towards one of the two extremes, rarely ever actually ending up in love or hate. We like or dislike much more than we love or hate. A problem arises, however, when we camp out in that no man’s land of apathy longer than necessary. Apathy is only another way of stating that an opinion or emotion of said thing is pointless, thus that object itself is pointless. The effect is, when this is applied to one too many things, that “all is vanity.” If this is our conclusion on something, that its very existence is futile, we will tend to hate that thing. This is the exact type of thinking we seem to follow with Holden. He has very little opinions, and even if they do seem to be good, we almost get the sense that they stick around just a few seconds too long, and his only option is hate and depression.
This all comes to a head in Holden’s conversation with Phoebe. His sister is heart broken that he has, once again, been kicked out of school. She gets on to him about not liking anything, for having no drive in life whatsoever toward any goal. And when he is asked by her to state one thing he truly likes a lot, he can only think of an old high school classmate who committed suicide because he would not give in to the wishes of some popular kids. In all the answers he eventually gives (his brother Allie, talking to Phoebe, and being a “catcher in the rye”) nothing of much substance is given. (Though perhaps we can say his sad story will function as a type of “catcher in the rye”.)
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’r running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d 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. I know it’s crazy.
Holden’s story functions as example for all in life who are struggling to find a place. Our world is suffering from the paradox in which, with some seven billion inhabitants and a popular philosophy that says we should “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die,” we struggle to find relevance and meaning in our lives, something nearly every person believes deep down they deserve. Anti-intellectualism is slowly killing the individual. We desire knowledge but do not want to put in the time or effort to obtain an ability in critical thinking. Everything so far as knowledge is concerned is so easily discovered that thinking for thinking’s sake is often left on the back burner. The mind is the most ill-used muscle in the body. And while I will never berate the economics of our culture, it is sad the praise we give to men (what with the knowing of their height and weight) who can swing a bat or throw a ball simply because they are more entertaining than someone who writes books. But the best tastes in life are acquired tastes. The more we train our minds, allow for times of thought (easily done with pen and paper), the easier it will become, and greener grasses will be presented us, and we will have the full disposal of planting flowers and trees, creating mountains and seas and sundry creatures. If we don’t we will simply be stuck in that sad, depressing, and annoying voice of the narrator who, frankly, after a brief moment of apathy, began to drive me crazy.