J.D. Salinger: A Tribute

I wrote the following piece about J.D. Salinger when I was in high school. It is probably the only piece of high school writing of which I am not entirely embarrassed. In light of Salinger’s recent death, I republish the piece here. I think the voice of a fifteen year old can do better justice to Salinger than anyone at my age.

 

I first encoutered Holden Caulfield at fifteen. I was lonely and silent, wavering feebly in the enormity of life. He was a high school drop out, sidetracked and enraptured by the naiveté of youth. It was love at first read.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye became, in many ways, my bible. My father’s folded red copy became a permanent fixture on my nightstand and a second copy never left my backpack. I reasoned that if the 214 pages depicting Holden’s struggles—adrift in New York City—were always at hand, then ultimately, I would never be alone. At fifteen, I celebrated the novelty of imagination.

Like Holden, I “didn’t want to tell anybody anything.” I was afraid. I was afraid of a disinterested, preoccupied world. Holden warned that we realize, when we start talking, exactly what we don’t want to say. And so I kept quiet. Yet in secret, I, too, asked those same, befuddled, philosophical questions. And no one answered. I took the time in the irrational, ashen hours of the morning to compose my own peace of mind. I, too, opted for getting lost on the sidewalk.

At fifteen, I wanted to help him up, share with him my own fragility, my own indecision. Over time, the distinction between Holden Caulfield and J.D. Salinger blurred—they were one in the same to me. I wanted to give back to them everything they had given to me. It was Salinger who moved me with the allegorical bliss of the field and the infantile horses. With the identity of a child, still lost, still so uncertain, pained with the heartache at the hypocrisy of friends and vying for acceptable. He taught me that it is beautiful to cry out of happiness of I’m that marvelously affected. And it is okay to be “just okay.” Holden Caulfield opened my eyes when I realize, affectionately, that I had an ally.

There is no denying, however, that Holden Caulfield is not exclusively my ally. Throughout the past fifty-two years he has become the voice of adolescent anguish, not only in the wilderness of ‘50s prep-school kids, but for all of America. The Catcher in the Rye appeared in the American Library Association’s annual list of “Outstanding Books for the College Bound” every year from the mid-1950s through the 1990s. After fifty-two years, it is still the second most frequently taught novel in United States’ schools. Sixty million copies have been sold since its publication. I can hardly call Holden Caulfield “my own.”

When anyone else—a parent, a teacher, a friend, a stranger—used to tell me, The Catcher in the Rye is my favorite book,” I grew defensive, even angry. I thought that no one could possibly have a connection with Holden like I did. No one could understand him the way I could. No one would ever identify with his nostalgia, his isolation, his despair like I did. After all, he was my first love.

I have come to realize, however, that almost all teenagers and adults alike recognize Holden as one of their own. The novel speaks to all adolescents who are trying to understand the world and their place in it as they recognize the inadequacies in adult behavior. Holden discovers the compromises we are all forced to make, and, like all of us, he wonders why we are not disturbed about it more than we are. The fact that Salinger’s novel was and still is considered one of the greatest American novels of all time is a testament to human nature’s uncertainty, inhibition, fear, detachment, distrust and indifference. Even the few who claim to dislike the book share the same kind of sensitivity to the world as Holden. Perhaps they do not enjoy the book because Holden’s disappointment rings so true with them. We all despise the seemingly disinterested world. We are all afraid. The preconceived notion that no one else can possibly feel the way “I do” makes the rest of the world seem strange and distant. America’s common love for The Catcher in the Rye serves as a reminder that there is a little bit of Holden Caulfield in all of us.

Salinger does not capture the voice of a particular generation. He is rather the timeless voice of all Americans who feel that they are “falling down, down, down” as Holden describes. Even though Holden Caulfield is older than my grandparents, in my mind, he will forever be my peer. He will forever grow with me as I accept life’s compromises, discover my own weaknesses, sell out and turn gray. Holden Caulfield transcends age. He is the friend of all adolescents and adults alike who have yet to face the phoniness of this “crumby” world. My father is pushing fifty and still claims that he does not know what he wants to be when he grows up. He, like Holden, is still so lost, distrustful of the seemingly inattentive, “phony” adult world. Throughout the past fifty-two years, Holden Caulfield has become the American people’s most beloved confidant.

I have read and re-read Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye countless times, and with each reading I want all the more to reach out, to help Holden up, to reveal to him my own vulnerability, my own hesitancy. I am still enraptured by the naiveté of youth—that nostalgia. I am confident I will never lose it. And now and then I still have dreams in bookstores, of making Holden’s acquaintance for the long walk home.

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