... the dead Allie
This review is reprinted in the February 5, 2010 Melrose Mirror following the death of Salinger on January 27, 2010 at the age of 91.
J. D. Salinger’s story about Holden Caulfield was listed on the freshman English course. I remember feeling sad about the messed up adolescent, as my own adolescence was no great shakes. The idea of speaking through Holden Caulfield’s mouth was fun. It sort of gave legitimacy to youth, so I thought. That’s about it. I had no thought of what was troubling Holden, why he couldn’t seem to do anything right. As to whether "The Catcher In The Rye" had literary merit, I had no idea. At that time I read stories I liked as the only judgment I might impose on them. I didn’t know any better.
Through happenstance, I recently, in my 70+ years, had occasion to pick up and spend time with "The Catcher In The Rye" again. I was quickly captivated as I think I was in my twenties at first reading. The language out of Holden’s mouth just flows along. A lot of what he says is still painful to read. This time though, my mind did turn to think about what might be causing an apparently intelligent young boy to turn everything to dust?
The seeds of Holden’s difficulties surface just short of 50 pages. Holden tells of accepting a descriptive writing assignment for the “jock” Stradlater. It’s important to hear Holden’s words:
“So what I did, I wrote about my brother Allie’s baseball mitt. It was a very descriptive subject. It really was. My brother Allie had this left-handed fielder’s mitt. He was left-handed. The thing that was descriptive about it though was that he had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere. In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he’d have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up at bat. He’s dead now. He got leukemia and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You’d have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was fifty times as intelligent. He was terrifically intelligent. His teachers were always writing letters to my mother, telling her what a pleasure it was having Allie in their class. And they weren’t just shooting the crap. They really meant it. But it wasn’t just that he was the most intelligent member in the family. He was also the nicest, in lots of ways. He never got mad at anybody. People with red hair are supposed to get mad very easily, but Allie never did, and he had very red hair. I’ll tell you what kind of red hair he had. I started playing golf when I was only ten years old. I remember once, the summer I was around twelve, teeing off an' all, and having a hunch that if I turned around all of a sudden, I’d see Allie. So I did, and sure enough, he was sitting on his bike outside the fence — there was this fence that went all around the course — and he was sitting there, about a hundred and fifty yards behind me, watching me tee off. He used to laugh so hard at something he thought of at the dinner table that he just about fell off his chair. I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I slept in the garage that night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand was broken and everything by that time, and I couldn’t do it. It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly even know I was doing it, and you didn’t know Allie.”
What does all this say and what doesn’t it say? It says that the sterling younger brother died. Holden, the second oldest, is still alive. It says that Allie was the best, so to say. That also means, Holden wasn’t. Holden’s parents never appear in the story. Holden sleeps in the garage after he smashes the windows and his hand. Where were his parents at a time when a surviving youngster is in such obvious need? Isn’t it likely that Holden’s idealization of Allie is identical or similar to how other family members see Allie? If true, and probable, Holden’s unconscious could easily absorb the feeling that the “wrong” brother died. Then, to pile up on top of this, Holden, older brother, was not able to save younger brother Allie.
It is this later idea of salvation that seems embodied in “The Catcher In The Rye.” The idea is best felt through the lines where Holden sits and talks with Phoebe toward the end of the story. This is the scene where Phoebe, the baby sister, challenges Holden to say something that he likes.
“You can’t even think of one thing.”
“Yes I can. Yes I can.”
“Well, do it, then”
“I like Allie,” I said. “And I like what I’m doing right now. Sitting here with you, and talking, and thinking about stuff, and --“
"Allie’s dead - you always say that! If somebody is dead and everything, and in Heaven, then it isn’t really —“
“I know he’s dead! Don’t you think I know that? I can still talk to him though, can’t I? Just because somebody’s dead, you just don’t stop liking them, for God’s sake — especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know they’re alive and all.”
At an unconscious level, this feels as if Holden rejects Allie’s death, even though he says, “I know he is dead!” At one level Holden knows he has lost his glorious brother, but at another level is not accepting. As he clutches at a living Allie, the resolution of Allie’s death is impossible. It also salutes Allie as “… a thousand times nicer than the people you know they’re alive and all.” Holden has remained alive to suffer his aliveness as nowhere as “nice” as Allie. He not only has lost his favorite brother but he has survived, the lesser of the two. What a terrible, terrible burden for a teenager to bear.
Then the talk shifts to what kind of job Holden might like to have. Holden says,
“You know what I’d like to be?” I said. “You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had my goddam choice?”
“What? Stop swearing.”
“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like —“
It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “ It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”
I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”
She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.
“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 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 like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
The stage is set to show that Holden’s failures, one after the other, are anchored in his unresolved grief of his beloved brother, Allie. In his unconscious, Holden seems to harbor that he, the lesser brother, should have died, not Allie. If these are reasonable explanations for Holden’s psychological depletion, it is a short step to connect to his life ambition, “A Catcher In The Rye.” The “catcher” is Holden’s unconscious wish to have saved Allie from death and couldn’t. His alternative is to wish he could spend his remaining days trying to save Allie’s life, so it seems.
In fantasy, I can imagine phoning J. D. Salinger and asking him if my speculations about his story make any sense to him. Short of that, I have settled for studying CRITICAL ESSAYS ON SALINGER’S THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, Joel Salzberg, c. 1990. It contains several reviews and commentaries in sections from the fifties, sixties, and seventies, through the eighties. To my amazement, there is no reference to the ideas I’m presenting until the seventies. Of the entire twenty-five commentaries only four touch on Holden’s “psychology” and only one sees as critical the death of Allie.
Holden says, “I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage.” This highlights the prevailing attitude of the forties and fifties that psychological maladjustment was an interior matter. An individual was thought to have something lying deeply inside the psyche in need of expunging. Probably beginning with Harry Stack Sullivan, leading to family therapy theories and practices to follow, problems are seen as entwined with others. Today, the shift is from intrapsychic to interpersonal, meaning instead of looking inside you consider what's right in front of you.
Salinger leaves us to guess about what might happen to Holden. We know that Salinger landed on D-Day and went through the entire WWII. Having seen the ravages of war, maybe the "Catcher in the Rye" was the wishful feeling that he somehow could have rescued youth that fell all around him? At least, this is what I imagine.
October 5, 2007