There are people who read a “Christmas Carol” every Christmas but my holiday tradition is a bit different: every five years or so I read “The Catcher in the Rye.” It’s a Christmas story, it’s easy to read, it’s funny, and as I grow older it provides a good time to take stock of my own struggles with the “phonies”.
I first read “Catcher” when I was 13 and younger than the 16-year-old protagonist Holden Caulfield. I read it again when I was his age, and then again when I visited New York City for the first time, and again when I moved to New York City, and after I moved out of New York City, and now again when I am probably older than Holden’s father. Each time I’ve experienced it from different perspective and a different appreciation of what J.D. Salinger was trying to say.
Here are my takeaways from my most recent reading:
December 17-19, 1949. This is the first time I’ve fully understood the particularity of the story because it’s the first time I’ve read the book with an iPad at my side; it turns out that “Catcher” is as firmly rooted in a specific place and time as “Ulysses” is rooted in Dublin. And just as James Joyce fans celebrated “Bloomsday” on June 6, so too should Salinger fans celebrate December 17-19 as “Holden’s Weekend.” We know that the events occurred in 1949 because Holden and Sally go to see the Lunts (i.e., Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne) in I Know My Love, which ran on Broadway from November 2, 1949 to June 3, 1950. A quick look at the calendar for 1949 shows that Saturday December 17 is almost certainly the night Holden leaves Pencey, given that the previous Saturday (the 9th) would have been too soon for the semester to be drawing to a close.
(This is Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne)
In other words, we just missed a chance to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Holden’s weekend. But more important for understanding the story, 1949 was only four years after the end of World War II, and the after effects of the War were still being felt. With Europe in ruins, the New York of 1949 would have been by far the richest and most glamorous city in the world, but one full of veterans. Holden’s brother, D.B., who had been in Europe for the whole American campaign, would have been one of those veterans, and after having seen what he would have seen, who could blame him for prostituting himself and moving to Hollywood? (Incidentally, here’s the place to remember that J.D. Salinger himself landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, experienced the Battle of the Bulge and helped to liberate a concentration camp. No American writer other than Stephen Crane had as much war experience and it’s not really a surprise that he had a minor nervous breakdown in when the war was over.)
The Elasticity of Time. I hate to be overly literal about the events in a novel, but when I reread Catcher this week, I realized that the time sequence as laid out in “Catcher” is a little iffy. I can’t tell now whether the New York City of 1949 truly was the City That Never Sleeps, but consider this: Holden leaves Pencey after his roommate Stradleter falls asleep (11:00 p.m. at the earliest) and takes a train to NYC. It must be 1:00 a.m. at least when he checks into the Edmont hotel. He then meets the three girls from Seattle in the Lavendar Room and then takes a cab to Greenwich Village to Ernie’s, and when he gets back to the hotel arranges to have a prostitute sent to his room. By the time he declines her services and gets punched out by her pimp, it must be 6:00 a.m.
The same thing happens the next night. Holden wanders around New York, and at 10:00 p.m. meets his friend Carl Luce at the Wicker bar at the Seaton Hotel (btw, this is a real place, which now looks like this). He then hangs around Central Park in the middle of the night, visits Phoebe at his parents’ apartment and then shows up at the Antolinis’ at God-knows-what-time. Without ever sleeping, it’s early dawn when he flees the Antolinis’
All of which makes me realize that the breakdown that Holden has at the end of the novel is caused by sleep deprivation. By my reckoning, he gets at most three hours of sleep Saturday night and two hours on Sunday night. No wonder he passes out at the museum and breaks down crying while Phoebe’s on the carrousel.
The Role of the City. Perhaps no work of art – no TV show or movie – was more important than “Catcher in the Rye” in convincing me that New York City was the most thrilling and exciting place in the world. All those night clubs, highballs, cab rides and cultural touchstones made me yearn for the sophistication of the City. And not only was it glamorous, it was safe; Holden walks the empty streets and visits Central Park in the middle of the night without worrying about getting robbed, stabbed, or worse.
To a 21st Century consumer, what’s most striking about the New York of 1949 was how affordable it was. Consider what Holden does with his stash of money: he stays at a midtown hotel, visits and buys drinks at three nightclubs, buys two tickets to a Broadway show, sees the Rockettes perform at Radio City Music Hall, skates at Rockefeller Center, pays for a prostitute (granted, it’s only a “throw,” but still) and takes five or six cabs. Today a weekend like that at Christmas would cost well over a thousand bucks. For me the telling detail that demonstrates the difference between then and now is when he gets to the American Museum of Natural History and buys an admission just to satisfy his nostalgia. Admission prices at the museum are now $22 for adults and $17 for students. I know he’s a rich kid but today’s pricing makes the museum something you do as a special event, rather than something you do to kill time.
It’s hard now to know whether Salinger was playing as fast and loose with Holden’s spending capabilities as he is with his late-night timeline, but we have to assume that his readers didn’t scoff at Holden’s activities and find them out of the realm of possibility. To his readers in the 1950s, it didn’t seem outlandish that an upper-middle-class teenager could afford to spend a weekend in New York but today, even adults would have to think twice about the expense.
Holden’s Loneliness. It’s a truism that when you read a book multiple times you discover something you hadn’t noticed before, and for me the aspect of Holden’s personality that I never picked up on before was his extreme loneliness. He has no friends at his prep school and the reason he’s wandering around New York and staying in hotels is that he has no friends in the city to stay with either. The only people he likes are his younger sister and a girl (Jane Gallagher) that he knew from the previous summer but hasn’t kept in touch with. He doesn’t particularly like his quasi-girlfriend Sally Hayes (and who can blame him) or his old dorm resident adviser Carl Luce (ditto).
At one point he pleads with Luce to stay for another drink, admitting “I’m lonesome as hell.” He also invites his various cab drivers to have drinks with him, tries to get some little kids to socialize over hot chocolate, flirts with and pays for the drinks of the three Seattle tourists and tries unsuccessfully to make connections everywhere.
I think we are supposed to think that Allie’s death from leukemia three years earlier is a precipitating factor in his depression (if that’s what it is) and alienation, but I think the real problem is loneliness and an inability to make friends. (And it’s worth mentioning that Salinger himself ended up as a hermit in a New Hampshire cabin, so he knew whereof he spoke when he described Holden’s social isolation.)
Holden’s worldliness. As a 13-year-old, I assumed that by the time I was Holden’s age I’d be just as sophisticated and worldly, able to navigate my way through nightclubs with aplomb. As a 16-year-old, I realized: forget it. To be honest, I didn’t really have Holden’s confidence in getting around New York until about five years ago. And now that I’m the father of a former 16-year-old, I am struck more forcefully than ever how outlandish the whole escapade seems. There’s no way that I or my son would ever have been able to survive overnight in NYC if we’d been plopped down there as teenagers. Now, is Salinger exaggerating the sophistication of a typical Manhattan teen from the 1940s? He’s ordering drinks, finding his own hotel rooms, and bossing cab drivers around. I do remember that when I went to college, the kids who’d gone to NYC private schools were considerably more worldly than I was, so maybe it’s not so far-fetched. I think it’s fair to say, though, that unlike today, when adults want to act like teenagers, the youth of the post-War era yearned to act and be treated like adults, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that he puts on adult trappings.
One area where Holden is NOT worldly, though, is in his understanding of himself or human nature. He can’t even begin to articulate his alienation. In fact, he can’t really articulate much at all. It’s to Salinger’s credit that Holden really does sound like a 16-year old when he’s talking to adults. He’s a random piece of dialogue – his response when his history teacher asks him whether he has any concern about his future: “Oh, I have some concern for my future, all right. Sure I do. But not too much, I guess. Not too much I guess.” Yeah, that’s how teens talk even today.
Mr. Antolini. As a younger reader I took Holden’s characterization of Mr. Antolini as a decent caring teacher at face value, but as an adult I can see that he’s a bit of a pompous jerk. He’s a capable and inspirational former prep school teacher who has married an older rich woman and now teaches part time at NYU. He’s basically a kept man in a fabulous apartment on swanky Sutton Place (he sounds like a pedagogical Cole Porter). He’s probably gay (or a “flit” as Holden contemptuously calls him). Not that there’s anything the matter with that, but he certainly did Holden no favors by scaring him out of the apartment with his creepy head-patting when he desperately needed sleep.
But the worst thing about him is that he’s such a blowhard! Boy he sounds like a typical 1950’s intellectual windbag. He’s lecturing at Holder when he he’s practically asleep on his feet and surprised that Holden can’t understand what he’s saying. I finally acknowledged to myself that I can’t understand him either and it’s not my fault.
A couple of small points I noticed this time around:
- Holden’s visit to NYC is actually his second time in the city on December 17. He’d been there earlier in the day with the fencing team, when he lost the foils on the subway. I also note that Holden never takes the subway in the book.
- The living in NYC was a lot easier then. If he and Sally want to go skating at Rockefeller Center they just walk up and do it – no 90-minute wait. Same with the tickets to the Broadway show; they don’t have to buy them weeks in advance. And he’s able to stash his luggage at the lockers at Grand Central Station – completely impossible now because of terrorism fears.
- Holden has good literary tastes. He likes “The Great Gatsby,” Ring Larder and Emily Dickinson. He doesn’t like “A Farewell to Arms.” Interesting that he singles out “The Great Gatsby,” which had been a dud when published 25 years earlier, and was not yet considered the great American classic in 1949. As for “Farewell to Arms,” I’m sure Salinger was reacting against Hemingway himself, not the novel. If there’s anyone Salinger would have considered a phony it would have been Earnest Hemingway.
- The night that Holden visits Phoebe, Holden’s parents are in Norwalk, CT, which is about two miles from where I live now. Huh. If the book had been written today they would definitely not be visiting that city; it would be Westport, New Canaan, or Greenwich. Also, it’s a little unlikely that they’d be out until 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday night, given that Holden’s father needed to go to work the next day as a corporate lawyer.
- What we don’t see is Holden’s actual breakdown. By the end of the book, he’s a mess for sure, but not in bad enough shape to be sent to a mental hospital, which is where he is when he’s telling his story. All he says is that he got “sick” later — I wonder what THAT was like?
* * * * * * * *
I think I’ve probably read “Catcher in the Rye” for the last time. My book, bought for 75 cents in 1968, is literally falling apart now, and although it still amuses me tremendously, Holden’s adolescent angst is beginning to seem self-indulgent. I always found his denunciations of “phonies” bracing, but not so much the last several times I read the book. I realize now that we’re all a little phony from time to time. We try to act more confident than we are, or nicer, or more successful. It’s time to cut the human race a little slack. So adieu Holden. Hope you find what you’re looking for. Be real.