The Permanence of Holden Caulfield’s Youth and the Fleeting of My Own
Like what Matthew McConaughey said about High School girls in Dazed and Confused, I keep getting older, but Holden Caulfield stays the same age. Only I’m not sure I love it.
Every so often I resist the compulsion to splatter the following quote all over the social media channels to which I subscribe: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
The line comes from J.D. Salinger’s masterwork, The Catcher in the Rye. I refrain from posting it because I have already shared it multiple times before and feel I ought to venture into new literary sentiment.
Because — to tell the truth — The Catcher in the Rye, while still ranking among the most loved books to have ever graced my hands and mind, doesn’t hold the same all-consuming appeal it held when it first lured me in. Maybe that is because I am so familiar with it, but I also think it has a little [or maybe a lot] to do with growing up.
I can remember when Salinger first grabbed hold of my adolescent soul. I was fourteen. I was bored. I grabbed the nondescript copy of The Catcher in the Rye off of my mother’s nightstand. It wasn’t the ornately embellished version with its bright red and yellow, but one that made ultimate use of white space. I did not honestly think it would hold my attention. My forays into my parents’ respective literary realms usually ended with my abandoning the tome after fifty pages. (I just could not get into my dad’s classic sci-fi collection, as much as I tried to enjoy Harry Harrison.)
But I remember so clearly being unable to put down the story of Holden Caulfield. Initially, I was fazed by the abundance of “goddamns” but I was so drawn in my the voice of the sixteen-year-old protagonist that I let unsavory language wash over me. I remember thinking I ought to have a highlighter and pen to demarcate important passages and scribble thoughts in the margin. I remember thinking that was maybe mild sacrilege, as I had been taught through all my church-going that was the sort of thoughtful reading I should be doing in the scriptures, and I felt guilty that I had never been as inspired by canonized text as I had by this story. I remember not being able to put it down. I remember lying on the berber carpet of my bedroom staring up at my dusty rainbow paneled ceiling fan. I remember being sad when I finished the last page, simply because it was over.
But do you want to know the line that affected me the most? The line I still think about most often? It is a bit of dialogue from Mr. Antolini, one of Holden’s favorite past teachers: “I can very clearly see you dying, in some way, for some highly unworthy cause.”
That statement lodged itself in my teenage psyche like gum in curly hair. Maybe it was my youthful belief that my life had to mean something, that I had to be bold and drastic as I became an adult to prove that I was worth taking up space on the planet. As a burgeoning adult, one of the things that I have grown to like most about myself is my level of idealism (I am an INFP according to Myers-Briggs), but I don’t feel like I am required to prove my idealism through any sort of unnecessary flagellation. However, I especially love this line now in light of some analysis by author John Green (you know, that guy who writes all those deliciously witty and insightful, bestselling teen novels.)
This is where — if you are the kind of person that thinks that books should be read with their authors in mind — it becomes relevant that JD Salinger saw more combat during World War II than almost any other American. The ‘Great American War Novels’ of that generation (Catch 22, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Naked and The Dead) were all written by men who saw far less of war’s horror than JD Salinger did. He was on Utah Beach on D-Day, at the Battle of the Bulge and he was one of the first Americans to enter a liberated concentration camp. And yet, Salinger returned home and wrote, not about war but, about Holden Caulfield bumming around New York City. So, you can say that the stakes aren’t high in this novel, but as Salinger well knew, the cruel and phony world of adults doesn’t just treat people like Holden Caulfield poorly, it kills them.
I realize I am on the verge of rambling. I already admitted that rereadings in my middle-twenties haven’t mesmerized me like my first few runs of the novel, but I have read it in both English and Italian. The Catcher in the Rye doesn’t quite translate, so the title of the Italian version is The Young Holden, which I sort of like. It aligns with my notion that the book has the potential to hit its reader hardest when they are young themselves. Still, even though I am no longer a youth, the book has left me with something that has lingered into maturity — the notion that I am not alone in being uncertain.
I started this article ry with a quote. “Don’t tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” People take this quote a variety of ways. Some believe that it is about Holden not wanting to get close to folks he hasn’t yet acquainted himself yet. I take it as once you start reminiscing, you get lost in the longing for those you no longer see. I feel that. I have been rather transient in my adulthood. I have had ten different addresses in ten years. Once I start telling new associates of the dealings of my past lives, I miss the cohorts that occupied those past days.
I sort of miss Holden Caulfield. The one I first met when I was fourteen. I watched a documentary on Salinger once — one that came out shortly after he died. One devotee of his work managed to accost him in his isolation. That man said Salinger ranted to him that The Catcher in the Rye was “only a book!” And it is. Holden isn’t real. He is forever suspended in the nebulous space of his teen years. I wonder how he would change, if he was real. If I would have an instant bond with a twenty-something Holden expressed in ink on paper. But he’s just a character. And it’s just a book.