Christopher Hitchens on J.D. Salinger

A Few Thoughts on The Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a great read. It’s also a great way for a reader to measure how he or she has changed over the years. Like many (very, very many) readers, I cut my literary teeth on The Catcher in the Rye. I was probably 15 when I first read the book and I sympathized wholly with Holden Caulfield. Like most teens, I was selfish and insular and thought that I was special and unique in my alienation. I was also pretty sure the world was filled with phonies and fakes, and I was determined not to become one of them when I grew up. I must’ve read it three or four times in high school, maybe more.

I was in college, maybe 19 or 20 when I read the book again. Oddly, or perhaps not oddly, I had converted (or masked) my cynicism–always an unearned pose of world-weariness for a teen–into a resolute idealism (the earnestness of which was always undercut by a generational infection of irony, of course). I could now peer into Catcher‘s great irony; I could see that Holden was a big phony too, maybe the biggest in the novel, that he was as cruel as anyone else in the book, and that his obsession with the innocence of youth was not a virtue but a sort of blindness, an ideological defense mechanism rooted in adolescent wish fulfillment. In fact, as an undergrad I begin to see the underlying themes of pedophilia that permeated Salinger’s work. They were minor and covert, to be sure, but also a bit unsettling. I’m sure I read at least twice in college, once for an English class and once on my own. I might’ve read it more than twice.

I read the book again in my mid-twenties, inspired perhaps by Will Smith’s monologue in the film adaptation of John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation. Here’s the monologue, where Smith’s character (who, spoiler, turns out to be a big phony) tries to explain why so many psychos and killers find justification for their mad agendas in Catcher:

At this point, I was detached enough from my own teen years to be somewhat disturbed by Holden’s behavior. I found him arrogant and clueless and largely unsympathetic. It was the end of the novel in particular that pointed toward psychopathic tendencies: Holden’s wish to “catch” all the kids who will “fall” from innocence, purity, spontaneity, whatever–this looked more to me now like a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder than the mark of tragic hero. I haven’t read the book since then.

Now that Salinger’s dead, like many fans, I’m excited. I’m excited to see what’s been stacking up in Salinger’s retreat in Cornish all these years. Given the inscrutability of later work like Seymour: An Introduction and the fact that Salinger wrote solely for his own pleasure in later years, it’s difficult to even imagine what the unpublished work will look like–if we even get to see it. In any case, it seems unlikely that any posthumous work of Salinger’s will ever penetrate the national literary consciousness (and conscience) the way Catcher has. I have a stack of galleys by my bed that measures close to four feet, but I think I’m going to put aside some time to see how Catcher measures up after all these years–or, rather, how I measure up to it.