My TikTok feed has only ever dabbled in the literary subgenre of BookTok. I’ll get a book recommendation once a month, at most. But for whatever reason, I get a disproportionate amount of content hating on J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” Some creators criticize the work as a whole; others go to great lengths to tear apart its protagonist, Holden Caulfield. After seeing so many nearly identical angry takes, I caved. I bought a used copy of “Catcher” to re-read it and get to the bottom of why so many grown adults were insistent on verbally berating a fictional 16-year-old.
No doubt, Holden’s narration style is annoying. The first couple pages alone left me both frustrated and amazed with the ratio of “goddam” and “hell” to all other words. Holden’s hypercritical and cynical scope of viewing the external world was also quite jarring, which should say a lot considering I have edited my fair share of Daily Arts’s most cutting reviews over the last two years.
While these hurdles were fairly quick to adjust to, Holden’s contrarianism and emotional stagnation made the novel lack the satisfaction of other coming-of-age works in which the reader or viewer can witness the adolescent protagonist mature before their very eyes. It’s easy to enjoy the coming-of-age catharsis of high school students realizing the arbitrariness of cliques and cultivating friendships across them (à la “The Breakfast Club”) but Holden’s situation is simply incomparable. As I read more, though, I made it to a crucial scene that I hadn’t remembered, and that the TikTokers had conveniently omitted. In a passing but vivid vignette, Holden recalls the pain of his younger brother’s passing before abruptly distracting himself with other ideas — a behavior and narration device that quickly becomes as ingrained as his excessive crassness.
Holden yearns to tell the reader about his late brother Allie, and he does so sporadically through stories that always seem prematurely cut off. While his narration style can be choppy in general, these abrupt endings typically come at especially emotional moments and reflect overwhelmedness rather than merely a short attention span. The bulk of Holden’s coming of age takes place three years before “Catcher” does, with Allie’s passing. The novel itself reflects the aftermath of a child forced to deal with a level of trauma that can plague adults indefinitely. Risking banality, Holden came of age too soon.
Salinger’s depiction of loss is a realistic one, with the goal being merely surviving rather than thriving. When I read “Catcher” in high school this 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 saw some of Holden’s grieving habits and mentalities reflected in myself.
The role of distraction in Holden’s psyche often resonated with me. Just as he could only reminisce about memories of Allie in small doses, I could not linger on my own memories for too long at a time, giving his erratic recollection some clarity. It was not as though I consciously chose to stop reminiscing — my brain would only let me produce a few moments at a time, perhaps as subconscious self care.
Holden’s relationship with distraction in a broader sense pervades the novel in a way akin to its role in my own coping toolbox. Sometimes, Holden is met with a wave of sudden restlessness and disdain for his existence, and he decides he needs to do something — anything to get his mind off it. It could be the middle of the night, but if Holden needs to wander and look for a task, he doesn’t hesitate. “Night walks” have become a part of my vocabulary in a similar manner. Sometimes that deep restlessness sets in when I wish I could be sleeping and, knowing I won’t be able to sleep anyway, I’ll wander around to see if there’s anything new I can notice. If there’s some happy thoughts I can think. Re-reading “Catcher” has made me even more willing to act on these task cravings. Holden has his fair share of bad takes, but he’s right that it’s never good to lay and simmer with negative thoughts.
In terms of his worldview itself, I would be wrong to omit Holden’s feelings about phonies. While “hell” and “goddam” would likely rank first and second in their frequency within the novel, bronze would have to go to “phony.” Holden will call anybody and everybody who he is not willing to emotionally connect to a phony. Sure, he spins this as judgment and spite toward their interests and personalities, but this labeling and distancing is more emblematic of dealing with, and consequently deeply fearing, loss.
The depths of grief make enjoying many things unrealistic. A surface-level conversation with a friend or a cheesy comedy may do absolutely nothing to raise spirits or even distract one. Even more so, your friends’ inability to perk you up by any fraction can serve to antagonize you altogether. Some of Holden’s lowest lows came at times when hopeful distractions failed to do their job. These disappointments hurt. A lot. It always felt like a major setback when I finally worked up the drive to follow through on a plan, and it did nothing for me emotionally. While I wouldn’t personally use Holden’s vernacular, seeing other people find joy from situations that brought me none could feel inauthentic, phony.
The magnitude of this phony-menon, if you will, is amplified through behind-the-scenes coping mechanisms. I’ve spent this past year feeling vulnerable. And below his paper-thin, abrasive facade, Holden is vulnerable too. For months I couldn’t imagine losing someone I was close to, someone I cared about, again. And you can’t lose someone close to you if you don’t let them in or connect with them. As maladaptive as it is, it’s technically true. While I’m not sure if I could handle another loss right now, at least I’m getting better at re-learning how to let people in, and I’d like to think Holden has it in him to re-learn this himself.
Before I leave you to maybe revisit the book, allow me to paraphrase an internal monologue that cements “Catcher” as a quintessential coming-of-age story, if nothing else does. Holden recalls his numerous visits to the Museum of Natural History and the various exhibits within it. He finds deep comfort in the fact that the exhibits remain constant with each visit, even as he changes. He acknowledges that these changes in himself may not always be robust — in fact they may seem insignificant at times. Even still, these changes and morsels of character growth exist and are fulfilling for Holden to reflect on against the stable scenery.
As chaotic of a character as he seems, Holden just wants a semblance of stability while he grows. It’s not the growing up itself Holden wishes to avoid but the lasting changes to his surroundings that come with it. More concisely, he doesn’t want to lose the people and situations external to him in order to grow internally. We all wish we could have the merits of growing up without the ongoing hardships from which the lessons stem. Rather than getting bogged down hating Holden Caulfield and his numerous arbitrary internal tirades, we need to remember where his shortcomings came from and will ourselves to move on where he could not.
Daily Arts Writer Andrew Pluta can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.