Random Thoughts

All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect opinions of others or the organization as a whole.

Holden Caulfield clings to his dead brother

... Holden's beloved dead brother, Allie.

by Ed Boyd

Re-reading Catcher in the Rye, as I did when 70, we learn in fifty pages in that Holden Caulfield’s revered younger brother, Allie Caulfield, has died of leukemia. To worsen this tragedy, Holden saw Allie as the smartest, happiest kid alive. Holden not only lost the brother he loved but he saw Allie to be in every way the better of the two. What a burden for an adolescent. We don’t have to look beyond this to understand Holden’s troubles.

In my writing about this story that I put in the Melrose Mirror in 2007, I took great pains to give Salinger’s words in Holden’s mouth as he describes what he wrote about Allie’s mitt. This writing exquisitely describes Holden’s grief. He is writing a story for Stradlater about Allie’s mitt:

"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 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 so I couldn’t do it. It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly even knew I was doing it, and you didn’t know Allie.”
I wrote in this way because nowhere else could I find that Holden’s problem was caused by grief. This was the article I put in the Melrose Mirror entitled, “Revisiting the Catcher in the Rye” (October 5, 2007). When I learned of J.D. Salinger’s death in January, I suggested that I repeat my 2007 piece in February 5, 2010 in his memory.      

I was amazed then as I still am of the host of articles on Holden Caulfield, there is scant mention of his brother’s death. At the Melrose Public Library I took out several books about The Catcher in the Rye in further search of the idea that Holden was despondent because of Allie’s death. Everything Holden did or did not do relates to the death of his beloved brother.

In this search I found in Bloom’s Major Literary Characters: Holden Caulfield, what I was looking for. Although the chapters are not numbered, on Page 87 is an essay by Edwin Haviland Miller, “In Memoriam: Allie Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.” [Essay by Miller in Mosaic (Winter 1982):15(1), pp. 129-140]

Professor Miller says on the first page:

“I propose to read Catcher in the Rye as the chronicle of a four-year period in the life of an adolescent whose rebelliousness is the only means of dealing with his inability to come to terms with the death of his brother.”
On Page 100 (in Note 1 of NOTES) Professor Miller says:
“Holden Caulfield has been called ‘a lout,’a saint, a ‘sad little screwed-up’ neurotic, and a ‘beatnik Peter Pan,’ but he deserves none of these epithets, positive or negative. The novel has been read as a critique of ‘the academic and social conformity of the period’(Maxwell Geismer), as a modern version of the Orestes-Iphigenia story (Leslie Fiedler), as a commentary on the modern world in which ideals ‘are denied access to our lives (Ihab Hassan), or as a celebration of life (Martin Greene). These essays appear in Salinger-A Critical and Personal Portrait, Henry Anatole Grunewald (Ed.), New York, 1962.”
In my writing I quoted in some length the note Holden wrote for Stradlater about Allie’s mitt. I felt that this quote serves to demonstrate Holden’s loss. Professor Miller says on the middle of Page 90 about Allie’s mitt, “…we learn directly for the first time of Allie’s death and of Holden’s self-punishing rage.” If you read The Catcher in the Rye as Holden’s “self-punishing rage”, (as I do), the story takes on a very different cast.

Edwin Haviland Miller was Professor Emeritus of English at New York University and died in 2001. He wrote critical essays on Whitman, Melville and Hawthorne.

("Dream Catcher" by Margaret Salinger)

The other book I am reading is by Margaret A. Salinger, Dream Catcher, Salinger’s daughter. I am about a third way into this lovely, lyrical memoir written with deep affection by Salinger’s only daughter. I am enjoying this beautiful memoir but I am also interested in what it says about Salinger’s war experiences. In my "Revisiting The Catcher in the Rye", I speculated about the meaning of "The Catcher in the Rye". Holden says:

“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.”
Perhaps this is the unconscious wish to have been able to save Allie, as I wrote in 2005? Or, as I also wrote then, maybe Salinger was writing a wishful feeling that he could have rescued the youth that fell around him.

In Dream Catcher, there is a telling comment on the bottom of Page 59 (to top of 60):

“I remember standing next to my father-I was about seven at the time-for what seemed like an eternity as he stared blankly at the strong backs of our construction crew of local boys, carpenters building the new addition to our house. Their T-shirts were off, their muscles glistening with life and youth in the summer sun. After a long time, he finally came back to life again and spoke to me, or perhaps just out loud to no one in particular, ‘All those big strong boys’-he shook his head-‘always on the front line, always the first to be killed, wave after wave of them,’ he said, his hand flat, palm out, pushing arc-like waves away from him.”
Maybe this is the origin of The Catcher in the Rye.  

June 4, 2010          

| Return to section | The Front Page | Write to us |

Write to us