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By J.D. Salinger
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991
ISBN # 0-316-76948-7
214 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2013

I feel the need to apologize for when I am re-reading this novel. I first read it when I was in high school in the mid-1950s. I have since read and commented on other of Salinger’s works, but I hadn’t reread this famous novel since that first read about 60 years ago. However, I had been thinking about it and then picked up this copy in late August of this year, and finally began to read it in September just before J.D. Salinger died.

I was just a few chapters in when the news of Salinger’s death came out and I have heard from the news that it’s now the rage to be reading this marvelous book. So, here I am, evidently with millions of others who are returning to this important classic.

Holden Caulfield has two brothers, D.B., a writer in Hollywood, and his dead brother, Allie, who died of leukemia in 1946 and with whom Holden often holds conversations. He has a younger sister, Phoebe, about 10 at the time of the story, whom Holden just adores.

Holden has just flunked out of Pencey Prep School in Pennsylvania. He hated the school and thought that most of the students were “phony” (his favorite word). He was a junior and this wasn’t the first school he flunked out of and one suspects there will be more.

The action all takes place within a few days, but Holden’s memories take the reader back over much of his life to this period when he is 16.

One is battered by his sense of loneliness and alienation from everyone except, perhaps, Phoebe. He is hilarious in the way he radically exaggerates almost everything, and he is a bit shocking the way he gets so carried away by what’s going on inside his head, that when he is with other people he will at times say and do the most incredible things, responding less to the person he’s with than the dialogue going on inside his head. He certainly isn’t what one would call “socially successful”!

Holden finds nearly everything in his culture is phony. Yet he does most of these things himself and seemingly always has. He doesn’t or hasn’t created his “alternative” world, other than this negation of everything. Perhaps that’s his problem. He’s young and either hasn’t the courage or imagination to have created an alternative world of meaning. I recall that as a high school student reading this novel in the 1950s I had these same feelings and in my case the novel was a further motivation to realize that I could create a world of meaning that worked for me. I didn’t have to live obsessed by the failure of the world around me, but I could enter an alternative world that I found more meaningful. It doesn’t seem to me that this novel created that attitude in me; it came before I had read the book. I recall getting arrested for participating in an anti-Korean War protest while still in grade school, which was before the novel was even published. But I think Holden’s negativity helped me motivate myself to take an even more personal control of my values and life choices.

However, it could well be that Holden’s alienation is rooted in his seeming inability to “fit into” this world that, perhaps, he wished he could embrace and excel in, but just couldn’t do it and still feel good about himself.

The novel is definitely a work of its time, but that make it no less important. The world around us was changing in important ways. The Beat Generation was creating and modeling a radical challenge to society, and in just another ten years the political activism and musical revolution of the Hippies would dramatically alter the world of American culture. Holden Caulfield was caught in this maelstrom of change. Too young to have the full courage to “drop out” as many would do within the next ten years, but his gut, if not fully his head, realized there were things about him ‘NOW’ that were just unbearable.

It remains an important book even if the way this conflict of past and present presents itself doesn’t satisfy Holden himself, much less the reader.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett