On complex main characters, trauma expression, and misunderstandings
Holden Caulfield has been making the rounds again. Originally published in 1951, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye maintains an unsavory status. While it is no longer banned with as much frequency as its early days — from 1961 to 1982 it was the most censored book in American schools and libraries — Holden Caulfield’s distinctly troubled and troubling voice solidifies its place as a novel rife with incredibly vocal and cyclical detractors. According to the ALA, it was the 10th most frequently banned or challenged book from 1990 to 1999. Around a month ago, following a rather strange list of books and authors a poster considered “problematic”, Catcher made its seemingly annual rounds on Twitter, where people extolled their dislike for the book and its protagonist. So what gives it such staying power, and what made it such an issue for so many in the first place?
That it should be taught in schools seems natural given its teenage protagonist and his struggle to find his place amid the interim world of childhood and adulthood. Being depressed and/or disillusioned at 16 is a cliché for a reason, after all. No matter how much we want to brush it under the rug, kids struggling to find their way in a society that emphasizes so strongly knowing the path of your future at such a young age is so common it’s hardly interrogated — it’s almost expected. So why, then, is there such a strong movement to stifle works that might help students understand or at least work through their emotions at such a chaotic time of life, and why is such a familiar protagonist so widely misunderstood and/or hated?
Teachers have been fired for teaching Catcher. It’s been challenged or outright removed from schools and libraries since 1960 for “vulgar language”, sexual references, violence, and any number of other easy to grab buzzwords. It’s even been accused of being “part of a larger communist plot” and having had something to do with multiple shootings, from Reagan’s assassination attempt to John Lennon’s murder.
The truth of it is, though, it’s the story of a 16 year old boy sitting in a mental institution recounting the story of how he ended up there, starting it out with “if you really want to know” and regretting having said any of it by the end. That this book was written in 1951 and so accurately depicts the numbness and emotional roller coaster of depression is both impressive and upsetting. That Holden Caulfield is received with such a range of response speaks just as much to the way we treat mental illness as the way we treat books.
The reality no one wants to acknowledge — especially those seeking to ban the book from their children — is that Holden’s excessive use of language, his approach to dealing with sex, everything for which he is most commonly criticized are all perfectly ordinary high school student experiences even today. Everything parents seek to shield their children from are things they’re doing outside of earshot.
Perhaps the most painful thing about Holden Caulfield’s character and the bannings tied to him relate to the “sexual references”. Reading Catcher in the Rye is an experience in reading mental illness and trauma in a palpable way. From page one we feel the weight of his life and emotions, even as he brushes some of the most traumatic happenings off with a sentence. There is every evidence — even an outright declaration — that Holden has experienced childhood sexual assault, which naturally complicates his relationship to sex and seems to prevent him from “getting sexy” with any girl, even when he wants to. Consequently the scenes where he is reckoning with this tension get interpreted as vulgarity.
One of Catcher’s most harrowing scenes comes when he runs away to his former teacher’s house and wakes up to find this previously trusted authority figure stroking his head, sending Holden into the spiral that eventually lands him in the hospital. The description of his meltdown is painfully familiar to anyone who’s been in a similar situation.
His disillusionment with the authority figures around him and his peers who make their own intentions with sex and women make perfect sense given his background. So too does his insistence that everyone around him is a “phony”. If no one is truly listening to what you have to say would you believe them to be anything but an actor?
Holden’s career aspirations of saving children from falling off the edge of cliff while at play by being a “catcher in the rye” are heartbreaking but cut to the core of his character. While we’re all under the impression he’s cold and standoffish, the reality is that he has seen so much horror in his young life — two deaths of younger people close to him and an undisclosed number of assaults — all he wants is to save children from the worst of the world so they won’t have to go through what he did, so they can stay real and true and curious. His younger sister Phoebe’s desire to run away with him is what stops him from running at all, lest she come to harm because of his choices.
While it is perhaps not surprising that a book about a male sexual assault victim struggling to feel solid in a world that seeks only to push him toward the next milestone for societal success rather than actually listening to his pain, asking no real questions until he lands in a mental institution, it is unusual that it should garner the kind of reputation it has. That it is tied to things like assassinations — both attempted and successful — is odd to say the least when you reckon with the story itself, but may make sense when you consider the way most people consume art.
People see what they want to see when it comes to things like literature and film. If they want an angry outcast out for revenge against society to justify their actions then they’ll find one. If they want an immoral character promoting violence, that’s what they’ll see. Most of what gives Holden Caulfield his staying power in the cultural conversation is his complexity. What makes him complex is the refusal to interrogate the fact that the way he interacts with the world is common to victims of things like assault. We’d rather see him as problematic than lost, more troublesome than desperate for help.
He regrets telling his story to so many people because he starts missing the people he had flashes of connection with, however volatile. Meanwhile his point is proven by the way we react to him: no one, it seems, really wanted to hear about it after all.