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Revisiting Holden Caulfield

Author JD Salinger.
Author JD Salinger.
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Holden Caulfield is the legendary focus of the legendary book The Catcher in the Rye written by legendary author J.D. Salinger. That, by anyone’s account, is a lot of pressure.

I first read Salinger’s masterpiece (it has been included in top 100 books of all time lists for decades) right out of high school. The novel (Little and Brown) first appeared in 1951. By the time I got to it in 1972, it was the classic coming of age story.

If you haven’t read it or it’s been a while, Holden narrates his experiences after being expelled from prep school. This is a privileged kid and it’s not the first school. He has money in his pocket and knows his way around New York. He is also lost and confused. Holden uses terrible language, making him relatable to some and repellent to others. The book has been a target of censors and church groups, but swearing is an important part of Holden’s character. He cannot find words in the same way he cannot understand feelings.

Told in first person, you interpret the world through Holden’s eyes. At 17, I felt his anger and anguish at the different people and situations he encounters. More than 40 years later, I question his choices and wonder about what drives them instead of merely accepting them.

He knows his parents will be angry and disappointed and is afraid to go home. On a deeper level, he believes his parents have always been angry and disappointed in him. “Favorite“ son Allie is dead. His little sister Phoebe “knocks him out” but Holden is sure they love her more. Oldest brother D.B. is a successful writer out in Hollywood. Every sibling does it better and Holden knows it and suffers over it.

It is a different book later in life, but still a brilliantly crafted character study. Salinger is true to Holden until the end - that is not an end. I have wondered what happened to the boy. Did he ever develop any sense of self worth? Did he finish school? Did he live?

Salinger and Holden were fellow New Yorkers. They both attended private schools and managed the fencing team. Both had trouble fitting in. J.D. Salinger lived a life away from the spotlight and died in 2010 at the age of 91. He was as enigmatic as his most famous character.

I wasn’t as rattled as I was the first time I read The Catcher in the Rye, but I’m glad I did it again.

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