Interpreting Catcher in the Rye: The one big mistake people make.

The One Big Mistake People Make About Catcher in the Rye

The One Big Mistake People Make About Catcher in the Rye

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 12 2013 11:05 AM

He’s Not Holden!

The one big mistake people make about Salinger and Catcher in the Rye.

Salinger during the liberation of Paris in 1944
J.D. Salinger, who is the subject of a new book and film, pictured during the liberation of Paris in 1944.

Photo courtesy Weinstein Company

I didn’t want to write this piece. I’ve got Salinger fatigue, and I bet you do too. But it always happens. Salinger controversies (like Nabokov controversies) keep pullin’ me back in.

Here I thought I’d addressed all the necessary Salinger questions a few months ago when I discovered the newly donated Salinger letters at the Morgan Library and wrote about Salinger’s obsession with Vedantism and the price his fiction paid for his flight into what I called “spiritual self-medication.” I argued that that “spiritual self-medication,” so necessary to save his mind from wartime horrors, stole his soul in a way—or in any case stuffed his later prose with undigested mystical didactism. Certainly the later Glass family stories suffered for centering on the insufferable Seymour, the purported “holy man” and Vedantic sage, with whom I finally was so fed up I called him a “mystical windbag.”

But the new Salinger book and film have pulled me back in, because they both perpetuate a fundamental mistake about The Catcher in the Rye, a mistake worth correcting.


Now there is much to admire about the reportorial coup of the book and film: the revelation that before his death, Salinger had scheduled five new books for publication in the years between 2015 and 2020. If this proves to be true, as director Shane Salerno and co-writer David Shields assure us it is, it would be exciting. Of course we have to take the word of the two “separate and independent” anonymous sources Salerno and Shields cite. Which is why the Salinger estate should abandon the completely unnecessary silence they’ve maintained till now, so far neither confirming nor denying the report about the new works. Come on guys, the Silent Writer is dead. Nobody wants to play your reindeer games anymore.

I can’t say I feel the same enthusiasm about the book’s sketchier “revelation”: That Salinger’s psyche was distorted by his alleged shame over the alleged fact that he had only one testicle. Maybe my lack of enthusiasm for this “scoop” has been influenced by having to deal with persistent ludicrous attempts to “explain” Adolf Hitler by means of the dubious one-testicle theory.

Still, if you’re a Salinger fan, the 700-page book is worth the read. And strangely the 700 pages seemed to go by faster than the two-hour movie, which has been unnecessarily padded with all sorts of gimmicks apparently designed to make it more Cineplex friendly. And a bombastic musical score that sometimes makes it hard to take seriously. The film does leave out the sketchy one-testicle theory, you have to say that for it, but it also—compared to the book—slights the crucial Vedanta connection, failing to devote sufficient time to investigate or examine the nature of the particular rabbit hole of mysticism Salinger slipped into. It’s probably the most important aspect of his later life—and work, alas. One thing I liked in the film that I first thought was a blunder: showing a “re-enactment” of Salinger typing on a typewriter with no paper in it at times turned out to be—someone connected with the film assured me—a deliberate metaphor. The sound of one hand tapping. (I should note that the book and film both reproduce the cover of my 1997 Esquire story on my journey into Salinger land, and the book cites a section of my New York Times Book Review assessment of Salinger’s daughter’s memoir.)

But one thing the book and the movie have in common that must be dealt with is a big mistake about The Catcher in the Rye. I didn’t pay much attention to Catcher in my recent piece because I was focused on the reverence for Salinger’s Glass family stories. And because, let’s face it, The Catcher in the Rye has not lacked for attention.

But I was shocked to see the recrudescence (gotta love that word!) of an elementary mistake about the way to read that book—whether you like it or not. A mistake about how to read any work of literature.

A mistake to be found in much of the commentary as well: that Salinger and Holden are the same. The idea is that Holden Caulfield is a pure uncritical expression of Salinger himself and that the book should be read as a simplistic working out of his wartime rage against the world—which we're meant to share. It's what a number of intelligent people I've spoken to have come away from the film feeling, something it sought to import with its hokey reenactment of Salinger fleeing like Holden into the mean streets after an editor called Holden “crazy.”

In Salinger (the book) co-writer David Shields (who has written novels) opens an entire chapter called "Assassins"—devoted to Mark David Chapman and a couple of other psychopathic idiots who have taken Holdenesque rage against phonies to horrific conclusions—by claiming that this is the "wrong" interpretation of the novel, this identification of Holden and Salinger.

And yet there it is on page 259, some 200 pages earlier, presented as the big reveal of all the authors’ reporting on Salinger's inner torment. The co-writers pick up from a reported conversation in which Salinger (like any number of novelists) spoke of his character, Holden, to a friend, as if Holden really existed.

Aha, the authors virtually high five each other: proof!

"What was there not to understand?" they ask. "Holden did exist. He was J.D. Salinger."

Um, no. Do I have to say the obvious? I feel like I’m telling a child about Santa Claus. Or a 17-year-old (Holden’s age and the age beyond which anyone should know this): Holden does not exist! Holden is a fictional character in a novel by J.D. Salinger. And J.D. Salinger was a gifted 30-ish writer whose accomplishment in the novel was precisely the ability to distinguish and distance himself from Holden’s over-the-top, hysterically polarized division of the world into pure and impure people. To observe it with beautiful verisimilitude, to sympathize with its ardent romanticism to an extent, but not to endorse its hysteria as his own.

Salinger, by Shane Salerno

Poster courtesy Weinstein Company

It’s a mistake that any freshman English major should be able to avoid: confusing the author of a work with the fiction—and characters—he creates. Not that there’s never any relation, but one should be able to read a work, to allow it to speak for itself in complex ways, to recognize it may contain conflicting points of view, without having to mind-read its dead author or map his life into his work in a simplistic way. Or reduce the work to a single point of view. The best novels resist reduction.

That’s what fiction is about isn’t it, you know? Creating “characters” who may be different in some respects from the author? Characters who are not always spokespuppets, characters who sometimes may actually represent different perspectives, perspectives that can be critiqued by the perspectives of other characters in the book. In fact the conflict of multiple perspectives is one of the things that often make literature different from, richer than most mere memoirs.

It’s just so pointless to reduce the entire novel to some equation: S equals Holden minus one you-know-what. And it emphasizes the damage that biographical criticism can do to our ability to see a writer’s work. It’s a reading that diminishes the achievement of the book drastically. Makes it seem to be a novel that would appeal only to those 17 or under. And by the way, if you haven’t read it since you were 17, I’d suggest you reread it now. You’ll appreciate just how different it seems to you as an adult, something lost apparently not just on the Salinger authors and Mark David Chapman but on many who haven’t read it since adolescence.

Since the point is so important—the point that the novel contains different points of view from Holden’s, and contains its own critique of Holden’s point of view—I will make explicit a couple of those conflicting points of view J.D. Salinger (you know, the author) conspicuously inserted, practically waving red flags for all but those blinded by misapplied biographical criticism to see.