You'd have to turn to the Ivy League education, the family vacation, or valet parking to find things more overrated than J.D. Salinger and his perennially best-selling celebration of adolescent self-absorption, The Catcher in the Rye.
Much of the literati and many in the education industry have clutched this pathetic character and his quirky creator to their collective breast. So there's been much media gushing about Salinger and Holden Caulfield since Salinger's death last Wednesday at 91. The NYT set the tone early on with a novella-length obit in Thursday's number, giving a hint by heft alone how important a literary figure the Times considers Salinger to be.
Most of the pieces on Salinger have been hagiographic. Of the many I read, only one used the adjective "whiny" for Holden. More should have. Many of the paeans claim Salinger "caught the mood of a generation." To a melancholy extent this is true, and we're the worse for it. Holden was a scout for the Me Generation, still at flood, which has done much damage to the American spirit. He showed the way for a huge scrum of indulged young people who, just 15 or so years after Holden's appearance, pitched a 10-year tantrum.
For the true believers, the perpetually adolescent among us who recognize one of their own, Holden is a sensitive and alienated anti-hero whose 1951 picaresque exalts the innocence and authenticity of childhood and adolescence against the phoniness and corruption of grownups. For more adult readers, Holden is an indulged, self-pitying, twit whose elephantine sense of entitlement has become far more common as the decades have passed. His novel is puerile, anti-grownup, kid-lit, nothing an adult should take seriously, or promote to the impressionable.
Holden is the narrator of his own story as told from a mental institution, where he was banged-up after a mental breakdown. Attentive readers don't have to get far into this short novel to see why Holden is where he is. Perhaps a couple of years at such an institution would do Holden some good. But I can't help but suspect that two weeks at Parris Island would do him even more good, and at a fraction of the time and cost. It would quickly create a focus that Holden and Catcher lack.
Those who've had the pleasure (if such it is), remember Holden's story begins when he's expelled from yet another prep school his well-off and indulgent parents have sent him to. He's not cashiered for being too sensitive or misunderstood, but for being a bone-idle mope who does no academic work. It begins this way:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into It if you want to know the truth.
Unfortunately, he goes into it anyway, and gives us an odyssey far less compelling than David Copperfield's. Pouting, sulking, and complaining his way through barely more than 200 pages, Holden sets an NCAA record for whining.
Holden departs Pencey Prep to spend a couple of days in New York City -- where Holden lives with his family in between being expelled from expensive schools -- until the expulsion letter reaches his parents. Over these days Holden goes through a series of banal and inept encounters with, among others, a prostitute, a male former teacher who makes a pass at him, and a hotel doorman who will never take the Miss Congeniality prize.
The purpose of these encounters is.. .well, the purpose is never made clear. And they demonstrate that the only thing Holden is really good at is feeling sorry for himself. By and by the novel ends, but not before Holden carries on a good deal about phoniness and hypocrisy and the comprehensive ickiness of the adult world. This sort of thing resonates with young people who enjoy believing they are rebelling against hypocrisy, phoniness, cruelty, et al., though most, in truth, are just rebelling against cleaning their rooms and doing their homework.
The tone of Catcher is a mix of cynicism and world-weariness. But adolescents aren't old enough, experienced enough, to have earned either. The most people Holden's age can have is a kind of low-grade moodiness. Something just one step past the unformed an uninformed malevolence of the four year-old who refuses to eat his peas. So the mood of the book never works for anyone who has, in the words of St. Paul, "put away childish things."
While it's easy to see why adolescents, particularly of the indulged sort, would find this kind of thing attractive. It's more of a mystery why grownups, some disguised as teachers and lit professors, praise this nonsense and oblige high school and college students to read it. This is almost child abuse.
Adolescence is a tough time. The carpet-bombing of hormones alone insures a rough patch. So why cater to and indulge the worst instincts of what's already a rough time of life? Requiring adolescents to read Catcher is a little like requiring an alcoholic to read about booze, or giving Bill Clinton a free subscription to the Playboy Channel. Nothing good will come of it.
Salinger wrote things other than Catcher, but not a lot. He wrote short stories, some of which are more readable than Catcher and contain some witty, even elegant passages. But even these can be awfully precious. In some of the stories and novellas published in the sixties, Salinger spends time on the eccentric and angst-ridden Glass family, which seems to exist in a parallel universe. The chief Glass, one Seymour, kills himself at the end of the short story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."
Salinger published nothing after 1965, by which time he had fled to rural New Hampshire to live as a hermit, emerging only occasionally in order to sue people he claimed were invading his privacy. He was, if anything, quirkier than his main creation. Not, of course, because he lived in the New Hampshire woods and skipped the literary scene (which has its own quirks). After all, even Huck Finn, to whom Holden is often compared (wrongly, I believe), lit out for the territories. There being no territories left, the beautiful New Hampshire woods will do nicely.
On the strength of the Glass saga and other stories, Salinger might merit a footnote in the anthology of 20th century American literature. No more. His reputation, and his exhaustive and exhausting NYT obit, rests on Catcher. And it's a reputation that would not exist in a country whose literary elites had not abandoned the whole notion of adulthood.
No one over the weekend would come out and say it, so allow me to. This literary emperor is wearing no clothes. His only novel and its chief character are contemptible. I hope Salinger's soul rests in peace, and I wish the best to any survivors who cared for him. But the man's literary reputation belongs on the remainder table of an obscure bookstore, perhaps in rural New Hampshire.