A defense of Holden Caulfield
My TikTok feed has only ever touched on the literary subgenre of BookTok. I get a book recommendation once a month, at most. But for some reason, I get a disproportionate amount of JD Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” hating content. Some creators criticize the work as a whole; others go to great lengths to rip its protagonist, Holden Caulfield. After seeing so many nearly identical tantrums, I gave in. I bought a used copy of “Catcher” to read it again and understand why so many adults insisted on verbally reprimanding a fictional 16-year-old.
Without a doubt, Holden’s storytelling style is boring. The first two pages alone left me both frustrated and amazed at the relationship between “goddam” and “hell” for all other words. Holden’s hypercritical and cynical take on the outside world was also quite shocking, which should say a lot considering I’ve edited my fair share of Daily Arts’ sharpest reviews over the past two years.
Although these obstacles were fairly quick to adapt, Holden’s contrarianism and emotional stagnation meant that the novel lacked the satisfaction of other coming-of-age works in which the reader or viewer can see the teenage protagonist mature before his eyes. It’s easy to take advantage of the coming-of-age catharsis of high school kids realizing the arbitrariness of cliques and cultivating friendships with one another (à la “The Breakfast Club”), but Holden’s situation is simply incomparable. As I read more, however, I came to a crucial scene that I hadn’t remembered and that TikTokers had conveniently omitted. In a fleeting but vivid vignette, Holden reminisces about the pain of his younger brother’s passing before abruptly distracting himself with other ideas — a behavior and storytelling device that quickly becomes as ingrained as his excessive rudeness.
Holden longs to tell the reader about his late brother Allie, and he does so sporadically through stories that always feel prematurely cut. While his storytelling style can be jerky in general, these abrupt endings usually come at particularly emotional moments and reflect overwhelm rather than mere attention span. Most of Holden’s coming of age takes place three years before “Catcher”, with the death of Allie. The novel itself reflects the consequences of a child being forced to deal with a level of trauma that can plague adults indefinitely. Risking the mundane, Holden came of age too soon.
Salinger’s portrayal of loss is realistic, with the goal simply being to survive rather than thrive. When I read “Catcher” in high school, it wasn’t clear to me, but my recent revisit came in the same year as the loss of a close friend. And I’m not ashamed to say, I’ve seen some of Holden’s habits and grief mentalities reflected in me.
The role of distraction in Holden’s psyche has often resonated with me. Just as he could only recall Allie’s memories in small doses, I couldn’t dwell on my own memories for too long at a time, lending some clarity to his erratic memories. It wasn’t like I had consciously chosen to stop remembering – my brain only let me produce for a few moments at a time, perhaps as a subconscious self-care.
Holden’s relationship to distraction in a broader sense permeates the novel in a way similar to his role in my own coping toolkit. Sometimes Holden is faced with a sudden wave of turmoil and disdain for his existence, and he decides he has to do something – anything to take his mind off it. It could be the middle of the night, but if Holden needs to wander around and look for a task, he doesn’t hesitate. “Night walks” have become part of my vocabulary in the same way. Sometimes this deep restlessness sets in when I wish I could sleep, and knowing I won’t be able to sleep anyway, I go for a walk to see if there’s anything new I can notice. If there are happy thoughts, I can think. Rereading “Catcher” made me even more willing to act on those task cravings. Holden has his fair share of bad takes, but he’s right that it’s never good to lie down and stew with negative thoughts.
In terms of his worldview itself, I’d be wrong to omit Holden’s feelings about imposters. While “hell” and “goddam” would likely rank first and second in their frequency in the novel, bronze should drop to “false”. Holden will call anyone and anyone he is unwilling to emotionally connect to a fake. Of course, he sees this as judgment and a grudge against their interests and personalities, but this labeling and distancing is more emblematic of dealing with loss and, therefore, his deep fear.
The depths of grief make appreciation of many things unrealistic. A cursory conversation with a friend or a corny comedy may do nothing to cheer up or even distract someone. More so, your friends’ inability to cheer you up can serve to upset you completely. Some of Holden’s lowest lows came at times when hopeful distractions failed to do their job. These disappointments hurt. Many. It always felt like a major setback when I finally worked through the willpower to follow a plan, and it didn’t do anything for me emotionally. While I personally wouldn’t use Holden’s vernacular, seeing other people find joy in situations that didn’t bring anyone to me might seem inauthentic, fake.
The magnitude of this false chin, if you will, is amplified by behind-the-scenes coping mechanisms. I spent the last year feeling vulnerable. And beneath his abrasive, paper-thin facade, Holden is also vulnerable. For months, I couldn’t imagine losing someone I was close to, someone I cared about, again. And you can’t lose a loved one if you don’t let them in or connect with them. As unsuitable as it is, it’s technically true. While I’m not sure I can handle another loss right now, at least I’m getting better at relearning how to let people in, and I’d like to think Holden has the ability in him to relearn that himself.
Before you perhaps review the book, let me paraphrase an internal monologue that cements “Catcher” as a quintessential coming-of-age story, if nothing else. Holden remembers his many visits to the Museum of Natural History and the various exhibits it contains. He finds deep solace in the fact that the exhibits remain constant with each visit, even if he changes. He acknowledges that these changes by themselves aren’t always robust – in fact, they can sometimes seem insignificant. Even still, these changes and bits of character growth exist and are rewarding for Holden to reflect on the stable landscape.
As chaotic of a character as he seems, Holden just wants some semblance of stability as he grows. It is not growth itself that Holden wishes to avoid, but the lasting changes to its environment that accompany it. More concise, he does not want to lose the people and the situations that are external to him in order to grow internally. We all wish we had the merit of growing up without the ongoing struggles from which the lessons flow. Rather than getting bogged down in hatred of Holden Caulfield and his many arbitrary internal tirades, we need to remember where his shortcomings come from and force us to move forward where he couldn’t.
Daily art writer Andrew Pluta can be contacted [email protected]