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J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Aging Gracelessly

1919 words - 8 pages

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
Precisely how old I was when I first read "The Catcher in the Rye," I cannot recall. When it was published, in 1951, I was 12 years old, and thus may have been a trifle young for it. Within the next two or three years, though, I was on a forced march through a couple of schools similar to Pencey Prep, from which J.D. Salinger's 16-year-old protagonist Holden Caulfield is dismissed as the novel begins, and I was an unhappy camper; what I had heard about "The Catcher in the Rye" surely convinced me that Caulfield was a kindred spirit.
By then "The Catcher in the Rye" was already well on the way to the status it has long enjoyed as an essential document of American adolescence -- the novel that every high school English teacher reflexively puts on every summer reading list -- but I couldn't see what all the excitement was about. I shared Caulfield's contempt for "phonies" as well as his sense of being different and his loneliness, but he seemed to me just about as phony as those he criticized as well as an unregenerate whiner and egotist. It was easy enough to identify with his adolescent angst, but his puerile attitudinizing was something else altogether.

J.D. Salinger in 1951, the year "The Catcher in the Rye" was published.

That was then. This is half a century later. "The Catcher in the Rye" is now, you'll be told just about anywhere you ask, an "American classic," right up there with the book that was published the following year, Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." They are two of the most durable and beloved books in American literature and, by any reasonable critical standard, two of the worst. Rereading "The Catcher in the Rye" after all those years was almost literally a painful experience: The combination of Salinger's execrable prose and Caulfield's jejune narcissism produced effects comparable to mainlining castor oil.
Over that half-century I'd pretty much forgotten about "The Catcher in the Rye," though scarcely about Salinger, whose celebrated reclusiveness has had the effect of keeping him in the public eye. He has published no books since "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction" in 1963, but plenty has been published about him, including Ian Hamilton's decidedly unauthorized biography, "In Search of J.D. Salinger" (1988); Joyce Maynard's self-serving account of her affair with him, "At Home in the World" (1998); and his daughter Margaret A. Salinger's (also self-serving) memoir, "Dream Catcher" (2000), not to mention reams of lit crit and fanzine fawning. Rumors repeatedly make their way across the land that Salinger is busily at his writing table, that his literary fecundity remains undiminished, that bank vaults in New England contain vast stores of unpublished Salingeriana, but to date all the speculation has come to naught, for which we should -- though too many people...

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