So. The Catcher in the Rye. I have to admit, this was one of the books I most dreaded reading for this project, because it’s also one of the very few I’ve read before. And the truth was, I didn’t like it very much. And it’s really hard to talk about why without feeling like I’m writing a high school English paper.
Let me talk about that for just a second. I, like many, many people, read Catcher for high school English. And I did not enjoy it. In fact, I enjoyed very little about high school English — which I say because I think the cliche is that it’s supposed to be a writer’s favorite class. (I also was not an English major.) Especially given that I’ve always loved reading and writing, it would seem like a natural fit, but… it was not.
The thing is, I haaaate being told what to read. I spent high school doing the reading but resenting it; I spent college not doing the reading and sitting silently in class because I couldn’t participate because I hadn’t done the reading. (Not a recommended approach, by the way.) The honest truth of the matter is that, while I’m a pretty smart person, I’m not a very academic person. All I wanted to do in high school English was creative writing, and thanks to a state exam that focused on essays and was required to graduate, and attending a school small enough that there were essentially no electives offered, I never got to. I was grumpy and resentful and spend a lot of time thinking I’M GOING TO TELL EVERYONE HOW MUCH ENGLISH CLASS SUCKS WHEN I’M A PROFESSIONAL WRITER SOMEDAY!
Well, I’m a professional writer.
English class was actually pretty okay, though. While I still have complicated feelings about the subject, I also recognize that my seething resentment was my own personal version of teen angst.1 And teen angst, of course, brings me back to The Catcher in the Rye, and, of course, Holden Caulfield.
Empathy vs. Entitlement
When I read Catcher in high school, I hated Holden. The word I wanted to describe him was “entitled” but that wasn’t really something I had an understanding of at the time. Holden presents himself as alienated and angry at the world, and extremely judgmental. Whether someone is smart, stupid, beautiful, ugly, poor, wealthy, boring, interesting — Holden has an opinion and it’s that he doesn’t approve. He’d like for the reader to know how smart he is, and how authentic, and how little patience and tolerance he has for anything phony. Which is, of course, everything. He looks at the world the way only a rich white boy can, spending money his grandparents gave him as he wanders the city, having been kicked out of yet another school because he just didn’t feel like applying himself, because schools are full of phonies.
It is so. Beyond. Exhausting.
I do remember, back in high school, we discussed his mental health at least briefly. It was treated like a twist in the book or a trick of the narrative at the end — gasp! Holden was actually narrating to a doctor at a mental health facility all along! And that was kind of that.
I’m sure we also touched on grief. I mean… we must have, right? (I blocked out most of high school, so I can’t swear to it, but it’s pretty clear in the book.) A lot of Holden’s reactions — his obsession with innocence, in particular — clearly tie back to the death of his younger brother, no preserved forever in his memory as a perfect innocent, and perfectly authentic.
But when I was younger, none of that really penetrated. I got that it was the point of the book, but I couldn’t get past Holden’s attitude. As an adult, on the other hand, I am much better equipped to read with empathy. I’ve experienced loss in a way I hadn’t in high school, and I’ve loved many people with mental illnesses. I am much better able to separate out what I perceive to be Holden’s illness, and the behavior stemming from it, from his attitude.2 Not that they aren’t related: mental illness makes school work harder; a shitty attitude does, too. (And can keep people from noticing the illness.) But as an adult I’m able to say: this kid is in pain. Tossing him into another school won’t help him. But at least it seems like he’s getting help, as the book crashes to its close. He’s somewhere far from home, recovering, and telling a stranger his story. Will it help in the long term? Who knows? But at least for this episode, it seems like Holden’s family has figured out something is truly wrong, and that’s worth something.
Empathy vs. Apathy
And yet. And yet. I can have empathy for Holden, I can want to see a kid in pain get help, I can understand how his bad behavior comes from mental illness. But the one thing — the entitlement-on-steroids bit — that I can not stand right now is his apathy.
In Holden’s world, doing things — pretty much anything — is stupid. Without even getting into the idea of working for money, which of course he thinks is prostitution, he considers caring about anything, trying anything, or practicing anything, to be worthy of disgust. He rolls his eyes at the idea of performers practicing to be in the Radio City Christmas show; he thinks anyone who cries at sad movies is secretly mean or putting on an affectation. Anyone who ever applauds a performer — be it a show, a singer, a dancer, a musician, anyone at all — is tasteless and phony. He can’t even bring himself to admire defense attorneys who save innocent clients’ lives, because he assumes they don’t actually care about their clients, that they’re only looking for accolades, and thus should be disdained instead of appreciated.
I just don’t have time for that. And it irritates me past the point where I can empathize, because I’ve seen that attitude in so many real life humans. People who take join in raining on others’ parades. People who jump to point out the flaws in anything beloved, or who are just too sophisticated for anything popular. It isn’t just pessimism, the idea that something will probably go wrong; it’s sheer apathy, the idea that everything is stupid and nothing matters.
Last month, I saw Wonder Woman and cried, and then got sniffly again when I read this quote from director Patty Jenkins:
Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.
That quote sums up my problem with Holden on multiple levels. For one thing, I’ll be honest, the dripping-with-disdain attitude bores me. Disaffectation occasionally gets held up as cool because it protects against looking cheesy — but there’s nothing joyful about it. Joy comes from cheese. From sincerity. From having fun. You never have fun if you refuse to try anything because everything is stupid anyway.
But more importantly, the world is in crisis. Any glance at the news, or any form of social media, will show you that within moments. Immigration bans and ICE raids and KKK marches and police committing murder and getting away with no consequences, literal nazis in the white house and Russian hacking and hate crimes on the rise and the repeated attempt to take away our fucking health care and and and and and —
The world is in crisis, and the only thing that can save it is sincerity. Apathy, right now, is looking around, seeing things going to hell, and shrugging. Because why bother, right? The ACA is going to be repealed, so why bother fighting it. Politicians are all basically corrupt, so why bother calling. Nothing is ever going to happen or going to change, why bother trying.
Apathy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you can’t be bothered to change things, then nothing changes. Sincerity — giving a damn, giving enough of a damn to try to change things — is the only way things actually get changed. And yes, you — we — may fail. And yes, trying and failing hurts badly. I suppose in that sense, apathy can protect you.
But it protects you as the world crumbles around you, until one day you’re looking around wondering why no one did anything.
There’s no time or space for apathy right now. The world is in crisis, and our sincerity can save it.
Shut up, Holden Caulfield.
So what does happen to the ducks, and other odds and ends:
- So, looking at Catcher after reading Little Women and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn does, of course, make me think quite a bit about gender and writers. Both of the previous books had strong autobiographical streaks; I had to do some googling to find out that Catcher has a bit, too. While not as direct, Salinger was a loner who had trouble at a private school and the ways in which he is described as being particular about his art and how it’s received seem to speak of Holden-ish tendencies. And yet this isn’t something that’s often remarked upon, while it’s among the most immediate information you find when you look up Little Women or A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. So what does that say to me? Wellllll, mostly that we kind of assume women only write about their experiences. Culturally speaking, we have no issue with the idea of men as creators, but women aren’t assumed to be; naturally their brilliant stories must come from their lives. (None of which, of course, is accurate.)
- And speaking of gender again, one thing I noticed as I read is that this really feels like a manic pixie dream girl story, without the manic pixie dream girl. She’s in there a little, between the pages — he spends a lot of time dreaming about Jane, a girl next door who was his age but an innocent, who he remembers playing checkers with but couldn’t bring himself to kiss. But she doesn’t show up to brighten his dreary world, thank god.
- I also appreciate that Holden’s obsession with innocence isn’t sexualized. It comes through in his need to protect kids from profanities, his love for his little sister, his grief for his little brother. It is, in fact, the crux of the story. If it weren’t for that I’d have muuuch bigger problems with his repulsion toward basically every other female character he interacts with. All the women are too stupid or too smart or too boring or too phony or too ugly or too pretty, and he’s actively a jerk to most of them. But the same is basically true of all the men he meets.
- Sooo, the book is dedicated “TO MY MOTHER” which is apparently meant sincerely but for some reason comes across as passive aggressive to me. lol.
- Here, have some thoughts on the Robert Burns poem.
- Also, a tad bit about the cover.
- There isn’t a heck of a lot else I want to say about this one. I appreciated it more as an adult than I did in high school, both because of the empathy piece, but also because I can recognize it as beautifully crafted. It’s not a story I connect with or particularly enjoy, and I have no use for Holden Caulfield. But I can appreciate that it’s very well done.
- And yes, the girl who vocally refused to admit that symbolism existed and spent a lot of time shouting that authors were just telling stories!!!! They didn’t have to be about anything!!! wrote a book about and oppressive desert where the protagonist learns to grow flowers. ↩
- It feels weird for me, someone who is neurotypical and has no medical background, to play armchair psychiatrist, but since Holden Caulfield is a fictional character I don’t think it can cause harm. The book reads very much like a manic episode to me; I assume that the aftermath, where we know Holden is getting some rest somewhere, is part of a depressive episode. I know other folks have other readings, but bipolar was what struck me. ↩