Holden Caulfield, the sixteen-year-old protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s first novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” which has been published by Little, Brown and chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, refers to himself as an illiterate, but he is a reader. One of the tests to which he puts the books he reads is whether he feels like calling the author up. He is excited about a book by Isak Dinesen and feels like calling her up. He would like to call up Ring Lardner, but an older brother has told him Lardner is dead. He thinks “Of Human Bondage” is pretty good, but he has no impulse to put in a call to Maugham. He would like to call up Thomas Hardy, because he has a nice feeling about Eustacia Vye. (Nobody, evidently, has told him the sad news about Hardy.) Mr. Salinger himself passes his unorthodox literary test with flying colors; this reader would certainly like to call him up.
Mr. Salinger’s brilliant, funny, meaningful novel is written in the first person. Holden Caulfield is made to tell his own story, in his own strange idiom. Holden is not a normal boy. He is hypersensitive and hyper-imaginative (perhaps these are synonymous). He is double-minded. He is inexorably self-critical; at various times, he refers to himself as yellow, as a terrible liar, a madman, a moron. He is driven crazy by “phoniness,” a heading under which he loosely lumps not only insincerity but snobbery, injustice, callousness to the tears in things, and a lot more. He is a prodigious worrier. (“When I really worry about something, I don’t just fool around. I even have to go to the bathroom when I worry about something. Only, I don’t go. I’m too worried to go.”) He is moved to pity unconscionably often. He has few defenses. For example, he is driven frantic by a scrawled obscenity some vandal has chalked on the wall of his ten-year-old sister Phoebe’s school. Grown men sometimes find the emblazoned obscenities of life too much for them, and leave this world indecorously, so the fact that a sixteen-year-old boy is overwhelmed should not be surprising. When another boy steals his gloves, Holden can’t just go up to the boy’s room, accuse him of stealing his gloves, and hit him in the jaw. He is scared by what he imagines the culprit’s face will look like while his jaw is being demolished. (“I can’t stand looking at the other guy’s face, is my trouble. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could both be blindfolded or something.”) He is also worried by the lack of an acute sense of ownership; he didn’t really care about losing the gloves in the first place.
The book covers Holden’s last day at Pencey, a fashionable prep school, from which he has flunked out, and the following two days, which he spends in hiding in New York City. Stradlater, Holden’s roommate, is handsome, gross, and a successful amorist. On Holden’s last night at school, a Saturday night, he is in a frenzy of jealousy because Stradlater has dated up Jane Gallagher, with whom Holden is in love. The hero and heroine of this novel, Holden’s dead brother Allie and Jane Gallagher, never appear in it, but as they are always in Holden’s consciousness, together with his sister Phoebe—these three constitute his emotional frame of reference—the reader knows them better, finally, than the characters Holden encounters, who are, except for Phoebe, marginal. It is characteristic of Holden that although he is crazy about Jane, always thinking of her, always wanting to call her up, he never does call her up. He is always about to but doesn’t, because he’s never “in the mood.” (“You really have to be in the mood for that stuff.”) Perhaps he means that circumstances and his feelings are always too chaotic at the particular moment—that he wants to appear before Jane when everything is in order and he is in control of himself. Or perhaps he wishes to keep his memory of Jane inviolate and consecrated, like his memory of Allie; perhaps he is afraid of finding her innocence tarnished—not in a sexual sense, because eventually he is sure that Stradlater didn’t “get to first base with her,” but simply of finding her no longer what she was, possibly finding that she has become, in short, a phony. He keeps calling up a girl named Sally Hayes, whose manifest phoniness gives him “a royal pain,” but he writes that off as the overhead of sex. He can never risk it with Jane.
While Stradlater is shaving before going to meet Jane, he asks Holden to write a classroom composition for him. “Anything descriptive,” Stradlater says. “A room. Or a house. . . . Just as long as it’s as descriptive as hell. . . . Just don’t do it too good, is all. . . . I mean don’t stick all the commas and stuff in the right place.” The implication that all there is to writing a composition is a sense of direction about commas also gives Holden “a royal pain.” “I mean,” he explains, “if you’re good at writing compositions and somebody starts talking about commas. Stradlater was always doing that. He wanted you to think that the only reason he was lousy at writing compositions was because he stuck all the commas in the wrong place. . . . God, how I hate that stuff!”
While Stradlater is out with Jane, Holden, knowing his roommate’s technique on the back seats of cars, takes terrific punishment from his imagination. Nevertheless, he sits down to write a composition for the absent Don Juan:The thing was, I couldn’t think of a room or a house or anything to describe the way Stradlater said he had to have. I’m not too crazy about describing rooms and houses anyway. So what I did, I wrote about my brother Allie’s baseball mitt. It was a very descriptive subject. It really was. My brother Allie had this left-handed fielder’s mitt. He was left-handed. The thing that was descriptive about it, though, was that he had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere. In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he’d have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up at bat. He’s dead now. He got leukemia and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You’d have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was about fifty times as intelligent. He was terrifically intelligent. His teachers were always writing letters to my mother, telling her what a pleasure it was having a boy like Allie in their class. . . . They really meant it. But it wasn’t just that he was the most intelligent member in the family. He was also the nicest, in lots of ways. He never got mad at anybody. . . .
When Allie died, Holden took it hard:I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. . . . It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it and you didn’t know Allie. My hand still hurts me once in a while, when it rains and all, and I can’t make a real fist any more—not a tight one, I mean—but outside of that I don’t care much. I mean I’m not going to be a goddam surgeon or a violinist or anything anyway.
Holden copies Allie’s poems from his baseball mitt. He tells you casually, “I happened to have it with me, in my suitcase.” Very much later, we discover that the only person to whom Holden has ever shown this mitt is Jane. (“She was interested in that kind of stuff.”) Allie is always there. Sitting in his hotel room in New York, Holden feels he is sunk, and he starts talking to Allie. He remembers that he and another boy were going on a bicycle jaunt with their BB guns, and Allie asked to come along, and Holden wouldn’t let him:So once in a while, now, when I get very depressed, I keep saying to him, “Okay. Go home and get your bike and meet me in front of Bobby’s house. Hurry up.” It wasn’t that I didn’t use to take him with me when I went somewhere. I did. But that one day, I didn’t. He didn’t get sore about it—he never got sore about anything—but I keep thinking about it anyway, when I get very depressed.
Holden is always regretting that you didn’t know Allie. “You’d have liked him,” he keeps saying: the human impulse to make a silent voice audible to others, a lost essence palpable.
By the time Stradlater returns from his date with Jane, Holden is sure that he has slept with her, and Stradlater helps him to think so, without being actually caddish. Stradlater asks for the composition; he is furious when he reads it, because it is about a baseball glove rather than a room or a house. Holden tears the composition up. He has a fight with Stradlater and gets a bloody nose. Shortly after that, he decides he can’t stay another minute in Pencey and will go to New York, though his parents don’t expect him until Wednesday.
Holden goes to say goodbye to Mr. Spencer, his nice old history teacher. It worries the boy that while his teacher is saying edifying valedictory things to him, he becomes acutely concerned about the winter quarters of the ducks in the Central Park lagoon. (“I was wondering if it [the lagoon] would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.”) This worry about the ducks stays with Holden all through his adventures in New York. On his second night, he has an irresistible impulse to go to Central Park and see what the ducks are doing. In his avidity to find them, he pokes in the grass around the lagoon, to see if they are sleeping there, and nearly falls in the water. No ducks. Beginning to shiver, he is sure he is going to die of pneumonia, and he decides to sneak into his parents’ apartment to see Phoebe once more before he dies.
This Phoebe is one of the most exquisitely created and engaging children in any novel. She is herself a prolific novelist, who is not deterred from starting a new book merely because she hasn’t finished the last one. They are all about an attractive girl detective named Hazle Weatherfield. Hazle’s father is “a tall attractive gentleman about 20 years of age.” When Holden tiptoes into Phoebe’s, room, she is asleep. As befits an author, Phoebe has numberless notebooks. Before Holden wakes Phoebe, he has a look at her notebooks and her schoolbooks. Phoebe’s middle name is Josephine, but Holden finds “Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield 4B-1” written on the flyleaf of her “Arithmetic Is Fun!” Phoebe keeps changing her middle name, according to caprice. In a little list of variations, Holden finds “Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield, Esq.” “Kids’ notebooks kill me,” Holden says. He devours Phoebe’s.
Holden wakes Phoebe. The moment she opens her eyes, she wants to know whether Holden has received her letter announcing that she is going to appear in a school play, “A Christmas Pageant for Americans.” “It stinks but I’m Benedict Arnold,” she tells him excitedly. “I have practically the biggest part.” Then, after her theatrical excitement simmers down, she remembers that Holden wasn’t expected home until Wednesday, and she learns that he has been kicked out of school. She hits him with her fist. “Daddy’ll kill you!” she cries. Holden lights a cigarette and tries to explain, but can’t get much further than saying that the school was full of phonies and they depressed him. “You don’t like anything that’s happening,” she says. This accusation, in which Holden recognizes that there is a fundamental truth, also depresses him. He tries desperately to justify himself. He enumerates things and people he does like—his brother Allie, for instance. Phoebe replies sagely that it is easy to like people who are in Heaven. Holden, miserable, cannot marshal all his likes. There was, he remembers, a frail boy who was so bullied by some thug schoolmates that he jumped out of a window to escape them. A teacher, Mr. Antolini, picked the boy up and put his own coat around him—“He didn’t even give a damn if his coat got all bloody”—and for this teacher Holden has always had a special feeling. Near Phoebe, Holden begins to feel better. They turn on the radio and dance. Holden’s parents come back from a late party, and Holden hides in a closet. Phoebe, to allay her mother’s suspicions, says she has been smoking. Then, when Holden is about to leave, she gives him her Christmas money. She is terribly distressed by her brother’s plight, but she cannot resist flaunting a private triumph:While I was walking towards the door, old Phoebe said, “Holden!” and I turned around.She was sitting way up in bed. She looked so pretty. “I’m taking belching lessons from this girl, Phyllis Margulies,” she said. “Listen.”I listened and I heard something but it wasn’t much. “Good,” I said.
Everybody, says Holden, accuses him of acting twelve years old. It’s partly true, he admits, but not all true, because “sometimes I act a lot older than I am—I really do—but people never notice it.” These perpetual insistences of Holden’s—“I really am,” “I really do,” “It really does”—after he has explicitly said something, reveal his age, even when he is thinking much older, as when he says, “People always think something’s all true.” Although Holden thinks lots of things are funny, he hasn’t much sense of humor; he has the deadpan literalness and the all-or-nothing combativeness of the passionate adolescent. Salinger’s use of reiteration and redundancy in Holden’s self-communion conveys this. After a passage describing his schoolmate Robert Ackley as pimply, dirty, disgusting, and nasty, and as having a terrible personality, he tells you, “I wasn’t too crazy about him, to tell you the truth.” He had been to the movies, which he hates, with this boy and another, and they both “laughed like hyenas at stuff that wasn’t even funny,” and then he tells you, after this harrowing experience, “I didn’t even enjoy sitting next to them in the movies.” The “even” is odd and characteristic. After a full confession about how he feels when Jane and Stradlater are out in the car, he tells you, “I don’t even like to talk about it, if you want to know the truth.” He is so aware of the danger of slipping into phoniness himself that he has to repeat over and over “I really mean it,” “It really does.” When he is not communing with himself but is in actual situations, these reiterations disappear; the dialogue and the descriptions are economical and lean.
The literalness and innocence of Holden’s point of view in the face of the tremendously complicated and often depraved facts of life make for the humor of this novel: serious haggles with belligerent taxi-drivers; abortive conversational attempts with a laconic prostitute in a hurry; an “intellectual” discussion with a pompous and phony intellectual only a few years older than himself; an expedition with Sally Hayes, which is one of the funniest expeditions, surely, in the history of juvenilia. Holden’s contacts with the outside world are generally extremely funny. It is his self-communings that are tragic and touching—a dark whirlpool churning fiercely below the unflagging hilarity of his surface activities. Holden’s difficulties affect his nervous system but never his vision. It is the vision of an innocent. To the lifeline of this vision he clings invincibly, as he does to a phonograph record he buys for Phoebe (till it breaks) and a red hunting cap that is dear to him and that he finally gives to Phoebe, and to Allie’s baseball glove. He has a hunger for stability. He loves the Museum of Natural History because the figures in the glass cases don’t change; no matter how often you go, the Eskimo is still there catching fish, the deer drinking out of the water hole, the squaw weaving the same blanket. You change the circumstances of your visit—you have an overcoat on one time when you didn’t before, or you may have “passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them,” but the squaw and the deer and the Eskimo are stable. (It was the reason Keats liked the suspended attitudes of the figures on the Grecian urn.) Holden knows things won’t remain the same; they are dissolving, and he cannot reconcile himself to it. He hasn’t the knowledge to trace the process of dissolution or the mental clarity to define it; all he knows is that he is gasping in the avalanche of disintegration around him. And yet there is an exhilaration, an immense relief in the final scene of this novel, at the Central Park carrousel with Phoebe. (“I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around.”) Holden will be all right. One day, he will probably find himself in the mood to call up Jane. He will even become more tolerant of phonies—it is part of the mechanics of living—as he has already had to endure the agony of saying “Glad to’ve met you” to people he isn’t glad to have met. He may even, someday, write a novel. I would like to read it. I loved this one. I mean it—I really did.
Copyright [I guess, even though it's 67 years ago.] 1951 The New Yorker