A 1951 copy of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress) showing Holden and his sister at the carousel.
July 1951 was the publication of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
It is not my favorite novel, though it once held that spot, and when I reread it last year it seemed a lot older and a bit phony (to use one of Holden’s favorite putdowns). But when I first read it, it was the best book ever. It had all the things that occupied my summer between 7th and 8th grade – loneliness, confusion, a feeling that I was only person feeling this way, the only one who understood what was happening. I wanted to be an adult, and I wanted to stay a kid forever.
Holden’s alienation is what drives him to hunt, in his hunting cap, for companionship. His conversation with Carl Luce, date with Sally Hayes, his aborted calls to Jane Gallagher and his visit with Mr.Antolini are all failed connections.
Here’s a kid that likes the Museum of Natural History, because he likes the displays of people who are silent and frozen in time. They are predictable and unchanging.
He watches his younger sister, Phoebe, sleep and he imagines keeping her that way forever. That would be a better scenario than the one that happened with Allie, Holden’s younger brother who died of leukemia. He was eleven and Holden was thirteen. The night of his death, Holden broke all the windows in the garage and had to be hospitalized.
But Phoebe tells him about her childhood and its not like Holden’s romanticized notion of simplicity anyway.
Things are complicated. Even when he has opportunities for physical and emotional intimacy, he can’t do it. Some people hide behind humor. That was one of my shields. But Holden’s humor is full of cynicism and bitterness.
Holden hates phoniness, which is how he labels lying and deception, but he also admits to being a notorious liar. His repeated lying is really more self-deception. He is just as guilty of phoniness as the people he criticizes.
When this 16-year-old Pennsylvania prep school boy runs away from the phonies, his plan is to live in a cabin in California. He makes it as far as his hometown of New York City.
This novel was once the most banned, and the most frequently taught, book in the country. It connected with people in 1951. Despite J.D. Salinger‘s famous dislike of publicity, Catcher was a best-seller almost immediately, reaching number 1 on the New York Times best-seller list after two weeks. It has sold more than 65 million copies.
Today, the novel is thought of as “young adult” literature, but that genre didn’t really exist in 1951. It was a book for adults who had fallen off the crazy cliff and had become adults and wanted to look back.
Holden has a strange evening visit to his former teacher’s apartment. After leaving Mr. Antolini’s, Holden sleeps on a bench at Grand Central Station. In the morning, he walks Fifth Avenue, watching children and feeling even more afraid.
“Every time I’d get to the end of a block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, “Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie.” And then when I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I’d thank him.”
The only really happy time in the novel is when he goes to Central Park with Phoebe. It is a surprise, because when he had gone to Phoebe’s school and left her a note telling her to meet him at the Museum of Art (so he could return the money she lent him), he was not happy. He walked around his old school and it depressed him to find “fuck you” scrawled on the walls. He waits for her at the museum where he sees another “fuck you” written on the wall. He wants to erase them all before Phoebe or any kid can see them.
When Phoebe arrives, she has a suitcase and wants her brother to take her with him. His dizzy spells return. He tells her that she cannot go with him and she gets angry. When Phoebe refuses to return to school, he offers to take her to the zoo.
They look at some animals and walk and gradually the anger fades. He gets Phoebe to ride the carousel. Watching her go around and around from a park bench, he feels so happy he thinks he might cry. It is the only truly happy time in the book.
It is a big change for this boy who wanted to be the catcher in the rye. Holden remembered the line from “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” a poem by Robert Burns that is better known as a traditional children’s song.
The line he recalls is “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye” but his sister corrects him. “It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye'” old Phoebe said… She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.”
The difference is a word, but important. There is no catcher.
“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
Phoebe in her blue coat on the carousel grabs for the gold ring. That’s an allusion that is probably lost on young readers today. Holden is wrong again in that the gold ring is actually only a brass ring. Once common on carousels, it is now a rare thing to see. The small grabbable rings were in a dispenser and a carousel rider could try to grab one during the ride. All the rings are made of iron, but for one brass one. Getting the brass ring gets the rider a prize. The phrase “to grab the brass ring” has come to mean to grab for the prize, to go for the best of life.
Holden was wrong about a catcher who could save kids. He was wrong that the ring was gold. But he does realize that “the thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them”.
Allie was the closest thing to a catcher that Holden had to save him. Allie is frozen in time, like those museum displays, eternally innocent. But no one in this world of the living can be that way. Every child goes off that cliff into adulthood. And if we fall when we grab for the ring, we fall.