The Catcher in the Rye: Innocence Under Pressure,

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Dec 11, 2013 (4 years and 7 months ago)


"O Pencey, My Pencey!"

Critic: Sanford Pinsker

The Catcher in the Rye: Innocence Under Pressure,

pp. 27
New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

"O Pencey, My Pencey!",

[(essay date 1993)
In the following essay, Pinsker concentrates on Holden
character development during his stay at Pencey Preparatory School and his similarity to
Huckleberry Finn.

You ought to go to a boys' school sometime. ... It's full of phonies, and all you do is study
so that you can learn enough to be smart

enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac
some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team
loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks
together in these dirty little goddam

Holden Caulfield

Holden Caulfield's by now famous opening line
"If you really want to hear about it, the
first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy
childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and a
ll before they had me, and
all that David Copperfield kind of crap" (1)
simultaneously announces
The Catcher in
the Rye
's kinship with other American fictions that employ a retrospective first
narrator (Melville's

Adventures of H
uckleberry Finn,

The Great Gatsby,

The Invisible Man
) and insists on its important differences.
For while distinctions need to be made between Holden
character and Holden
narrator, between what his actions

and what he later

it is also true that the
difference between Holden 1 and Holden 2 (what critics, in part, mean when they talk
about "aesthetic distance") is at best minor. To borrow a phrase from Wordsworth,
Salinger's protagonist has not had eno
ugh time, enough distance, to "recollect his
emotions in tranquility." Of course, California is a considerable piece from Manhattan,
but the relatively few months that separate his winter breakdown from his summer
reminiscences are hardly the stuff of whic
h perspective is made. Holden is still too close
to the action, to the pressures, that forced his rebellion to its crisis.

Consider, for example, the differences between Holden's narrative stance and one it
consciously echoes
namely, the opening salvo o
f the
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
"You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of 'The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' but that ain't no matter."

Huck is a battered child while
Holden has been spoiled rotten. Huck has no illusions abo
ut his ignorance while Holden
peppers his chatter with SAT words like "ostracized." Perhaps most important of all,
while Huck's adventures alter him significantly (he is not the same sucker in the novel's
last paragraphs he was throughout his sojourn south
), Holden remains essentially the
same self
indulgent romantic he always was.

About some similarities, however, there is little doubt. Take, for example, Huck's
description of the lynch mob dispersing, tail between its legs, in the face of Colonel
rn's hard, courageous speech: "The crowd washed back sudden, and then broke all
apart and went tearing off every which way, and Buck Harness he heeled it after them,
looking tolerable cheap. I could a staid, if I'd a wanted to, but I didn't want to" (Twain
126), Salinger gives Holden a similar bit of unconvincing bravado: "Once, at the
Whooton School, this other boy, Raymond Goldfarb, and I bought a pint of Scotch and
drank it in the chapel one Saturday night, where nobody'd see us. He got stinking, but I
hardly didn't even show it. I just got very cool and nonchalant. I puked before I went to
bed, but I didn't really have to
I forced myself" (90). In both cases, what amuses is the
innocence with which the respective protagonists try to put a good face on
what we, as
readers, reckon to be embarrassing moments. At the same time, however, even
sophisticated readers remember similar episodes from their own lives, and rather than
censure Huck or Holden, they are likely to be sympathetic and forgiving.

Much th
e same thing can be observed about the penchant both protagonists have for the
"stretcher," or tall tale. In

The Catcher in the Rye
], we observe Holden's
whoppers about his impending death: the "tiny little tumor" on his brain, the imaginary
t in his gut, a recent operation on his "clavichord," and his deep suspicions that he
has many, if not all, the warning signs of cancer. Huck, by contrast, saves up his most
inventively gruesome leg
pullers for survival, but as Lionel Trilling pointed out
than forty years ago, he does not lie to himself. One could argue that Holden does
precisely that, at least in most of the confrontations between the phony and the pure he
reports. As Holden admits at one point, "I'm always saying 'Glad to've met you'

somebody I'm not at

glad I met" (87).

Aside from their respective initiations into the variety and the viciousness of adult
corruption, Huck and Holden share the mutual condition of being protagonists in death
haunted novels. Hardly a page of eit
her book is spared the taint of mortality, whether it
expresses itself in the chivalric rhetoric of the Grangerfords or in Holden's exam essay on
Egyptian mummies, in the grisly specter of Buck or in the haunting memories of Allie, in
Huck's conviction tha
t "an owl, away off, who
whooing [is] about somebody that was
going to die" (Twain, 29), or in Holden's quick leap from a magazine article about the
warning signs of cancer to the certainty of the grave: "I'd had this sore on the inside of
my lip for about

two weeks.

So I figured I was getting cancer" (196).

Moreover, Holden's speech is filled with slang that can be read simultaneously on two
levels. When, for example, he points out that this or that "killed him" (usually with
reference to the surprising
politeness or just plain whimsy of children), the phrase cannot
help but call our attention to his brooding obsession with his brother Allie's death, and,
indeed, about death in general. And when Phoebe exclaims that "Daddy'll kill you!"
because Holden has

flunked out of yet another prep school, the point is less that there is
an Oedipal struggle going on in the Caulfield's expensive Manhattan apartment than that
this is the hyperbolic way adolescents actually speak. Salinger, of course, chooses such
with care
again, not because he has an Oedipal card up his sleeve, but rather
because "Daddy'll kill you!" is one strand in a much larger pattern of death imagery. Let
me reiterate that unlike the characters in Sophocles'
Oedipus Rex

or in Freud's case
stories, Holden harbors no competitive, much less murderous, thoughts toward his
father, and the same thing is true about Mr. Caulfield toward Holden.

Beside obsession with death, Huck and Holden also share in the loneliness that stems
inextricably from t
heir respective broodings and that is built into their retrospective
narratives. Often in comparable novels like

only Ishmael, the novel's
narrator, escapes to tell his tale. In other cases like Marlow in
Heart of

or Nick Ca
rraway in
The Great Gatsby,

the protagonist
narrator's experiences
have been so traumatic, so fundamentally altering, that they no longer "see" the world as
others do.

In their own ways, Holden and Huck are just as spiritually isolated as these character
but Huck is slightly better off. After all, he bonds with Jim in those resplendent, short
lived scenes in which man, boy, and raft merge with the river. Holden is less fortunate,
for in a world where phonies vastly outnumber the pure of heart, there are

only small
moments of stasis: unspoiled, white snow, the Museum of Natural History, Phoebe in her
blue coat going round and round on the Central Park carousel. Everything else is a
veritable flood tide pushing Holden toward change, toward adulthood, towar
responsibility, toward abject phoniness, toward death.

The Catcher in the Rye,

then, fairly aches to be read as an urban twentieth century
variant of the
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,

and while the generalization reduces some
important distinctions,
those readers who saw Twain's Mississippi reflected on
Manhattan's streets were not essentially wrong. The protagonist
narrators of both novels
filter experience through their respective sensibilities, make bids for our undivided
attention, and, in effect,

do what they can to walk off with the whole show. But that much
said, there are important differences between Twain's retrospective protagonist and
Salinger's. For Huck not only unrolls his tale is a straightforward, chronological fashion,
but, more impor
tant, he describes far more than he judges. As part of the larger satiric
convention that brought the hayseed to the city or Gulliver to the land of the
Brobdingagians, Huck's "ignorance" has a decided satiric advantage
for his unqualified
admiration of,
say, the Grangerfords' house (with its garish mantle clock and fake fruit)
or Emmeline Grangerford's god
awful poetry is at once funny and satirical. After all,
most readers know bad taste when they see it and bad poetry when they hear it, and can
make up
for Huck's cultural ignorance by filling in the gaps. Meanwhile, the tragic
dimensions of the
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

churn just underneath its satiric

By contrast, Holden's story is filled with what his Oral Expression class learned to call
"digressions." Rather than proceeding in a straight line, he wanders, first announcing, "I'll
just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Ch
ristmas" (1), and
then pausing to describe his brother. Granted, Holden's casual leaps and associative
jumps come with the territory of adolescence and help to establish his credibility as a
old narrator. But the extended asides also give Sa
linger an opportunity to
move Holden's penchant for hyperbole ("He just got a Jaguar. One of those little English
jobs that can do around two hundred miles an hour") to the exaggerated "specialness" that
marks Salinger's characters like a thumbprint: "He's

got a lot of dough, now. He didn't

to. He used to be just a regular writer, when he was home. He wrote this terrific book
of short stories,
The Secret Goldfish,

in case you never heard of him. The best one in it
was "The Secret Goldfish." It was about

this little kid that wouldn't let anybody look at
his goldfish because he'd bought it with his own money. It killed me. Now he's out in
Hollywood, D. B., being a prostitute. If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies. Don't
even mention them to me" (1
). No matter that Holden would be quick to censure the

who refused to let anybody look at, say, his hard
earned BMW; no matter that
Holden's professed hatred of the movies is suspect
for one who knocks the flicks, he
certainly spends a good deal of
his time taking them in. The point is that Salinger's
protagonist prefers the innocence and secrets of childhood to the world of getting and
spending where writers give up goldfish for Hollywood gelt. Thus, D. B. gets written off
with a single, judgmental
word: prostitute.

Meanwhile, of course, the digressions serve yet another strategic purpose
namely, to
postpone telling readers that his story

begins on the fateful day when failing
marks require that he leave Pencey Prep. Despite the dry, stra
ightforward way he
recounts how his academic fate unrolled and the fact that Holden has been booted out of
schools twice before, the banishment hurts. All the more so because he realizes that the
warning voices at midterm were right: he had not "applied" h
imself. In this sense, Holden
is hardly a prototype of the brash, chest
thumping Bart Simpson. Salinger's protagonist
may well be numbered among the prep school world's more conspicuous
"underachievers" (a term that did not exist in Holden's day), but he i
s certainly not proud
of the fact. His elaborate efforts at justification fall just short of apology, and his vivid
memories from his days at Elkton Hills and Whooton make it clear
long before the
novel's last paragraph
that he misses the people he has b
een forced to leave.

Still, as Holden himself readily admits, he just couldn't get around to the "application"
business. The rub, of course, is that applying himself puts Holden's innocence under
considerable pressure. At Pencey, one is expected to play t
he game, whether it be the
football contest pitting Pencey against Saxon Hall or what Dr. Thurmer, Pencey's
headmaster, calls the larger "game of Life." On this last point, though, Holden has his
cynical doubts: "Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the
side where all the hot
are, then it's a game all right
I'll admit that. But if you get on the

side, where there
aren't any hot
shots, then what's a game about it. Nothing. No game" (8).

Pencey is not the only spot where sport appears in
Catcher in the Rye.

There are, for
example, references to ice skating (the ill
fated date that takes Holden and Sally Hayes to
the rink at Rockefeller Center), to roller skating (Holden makes much of the skate key he
uses when he tightens a young girl's sk
ates), to golf (Holden is so good at the game he
was once asked to be in a movie short; being Holden, he refused, partly because it would
be hypocritical given his severe criticisms of motion pictures and partly because Holden
has an instinctive aversion t
o competition per se), the ritualistic games of checkers he
remembers playing with Jane Gallagher. But when Holden tallies the respective scores,
they are always the same: hot
shots everything, non
shots nothing. Games are always
rigged, especially if
you happen to be on the perpetually losing side.

However much Holden's sentiments seem an echo of Frederic Henry's bitter comments
about the absurdities of war in Hemingway's
A Farewell to Arms

("If they catch you off
base, they kill you"
), there are im
portant differences. At one point, Holden mentions
Hemingway's novel specifically, wondering why D. B. could hate war and still admire a
phony like Lieutenant Henry. Granted, Holden applies a rather curious litmus test to
literature, preferring characters
who "knock him out" with small touches and childlike
gestures, and authors who create the impression that they are friendly, altogether "nice"
folks you could call up on the phone. By contrast, when a character launches into stump
speeches, as a Hemingway
protagonist is prone to do, Holden chalks him up as one of the
shots," and consigns him to that netherworld where movers and shakers presumably
stew in their own juices. That said, it is worth observing that Holden fights his battles to
preserve innoc
ence on a rather cushy front;

existential tests are not the sort that
require him to slog through the mud or to face enemy bombardment.

Nonetheless, Holden finds himself surrounded by intimations of warfare: the "crazy
cannon" he leans against as he
watches the respective football teams clash against each
other on Pencey's darkling plain, the fencing foils he "accidently" leaves on the subway,
and, perhaps most of all, his confrontation with Mr. Spencer, the history teacher who
lives on Anthony Wayne
Avenue. Indeed, reminders of the American Revolution are
scattered across Pencey's well
manicured turf, and not merely to provide appropriate
local color. For Holden is engaged in nothing less than a contemporary revolution against
authority figures, one h
e may not completely understand, but one with no shortage of
enemies. Even the war hero's nickname, "Mad" Anthony Wayne, is carefully chosen, as
yet another indicator or nuance of all that is "crazy" in a novel that pits those who are
sane but phony agains
t those who are headed for nervous breakdowns but pure.

The well
meaning Mr. Spencer
obviously distressed because he has had to flunk Holden
in history
stands for sanity, for filling in the blanks correctly, and for writing dutiful
(read: conventional)
themes, despite his address on Anthony Wayne Avenue. He had
written Holden a note asking to see him before he left Pencey, and because Holden is a
great believer in proper farewells, he feels a double obligation to show up. But Spencer is
destined to becom
e yet another bead in Holden's long string of disappointments. For one
thing, Holden is depressed to note that the Spencers are, by Holden's glib economic
reckoning, poor: without a butler, they must answer knocks at the door; without a maid,
Mrs. Spencer
serves whatever refreshments their meager funds can afford. For another,
Mr. Spencer is, like the "history" he teaches, old, which alone is enough to occasion at
least a portion of Holden's contempt: "If you thought about him

much, you wondered
what th
e heck he was living for. I mean he was all stooped over, and he had very terrible
posture, and in class, whenever he dropped a piece of chalk at the blackboard, some guy
in the first row always had to get up and pick it up and hand it to him" (6
7). Such
pathetic creatures have no place in Holden's world; they simply take up room better left
for the innocent, and the young. To make matters worse (or, as Holden puts it, "even
more depressing"), Mr. Spencer is sick: "... There were pills and medicine all ove
r the
place, and everything smelled like Vicks Nose Drops" (7). The scene unrolls, with the
bathrobed, bumpy
chested Mr. Spencer on one side and Holden
forced to sit on his
teacher's bed
on the other. The result is a classic instance of crossed purposes
missed communication, of capital
I Innocence pitted against capital
A Authority.

Mr. Spencer is obviously disturbed by having to fail a Pencey student, especially if the
grade contributed to the boy's being

expelled; but he is also interested in exonerating
himself, in getting the student in question to admit that he had no other choice, that what
he did was right. The rub, of course, is that this time the student in question is Holden
Caulfield. Rather than

argue with Mr. Spencer about his mark, Holden freely admits that
he knew (in Spencer's words) "absolutely nothing" about history and that, at best, he had
"sort of glanced through" the textbook a couple of times. All the while, however, he
continues to ma
kes mental notes that either confirm his previous judgment of Spencer as
a man of annoying habits (for one, he is a inveterate "nodder") or that add new,
undercutting information, for example, that he is also a nose picker: "Old Spencer started
nodding aga
in. He also started picking his nose. He made out like he was only pinching
it, but he was really getting the old thumb right in there. I guess he thought it was all right
to do because it was only me that was in the room. I didn't

except that it's p
disgusting to watch somebody pick their nose" (9).

If one definition of the artist is a person who cannot

see, who is at once blessed and
cursed by an uncanny ability to observe particulars, then Holden is surely something of
an artist. At the
same time, however, he is also the prototypical rebel, for beneath his prep
school facade and conciliatory prep school manners lies the heart of an uncompromising
purist. In short, Holden is a young man as divided as he is confused. As he puts it:
es I act like I'm about thirteen. It's really ironical, because I'm six foot two and
a half and I have gray hair. I really do. The one side of my head
the right side
is full of
millions of gray hairs. I've had them since I was a kid. And yet I still act
sometimes like I
was only about twelve" (9).

One could argue, that Spencer is the more childish of the two, because even when Holden
admits that his teacher was right, that he had no choice but to fail him, and furthermore
that he would have done the sam
e thing in Spencer's place, the unconditional surrender is
not enough. Spencer must grind Holden's nose in his impossibly bad exam essay, and
force Holden to read it aloud to boot. If Holden is wrong for bashing Spencer simply
because the teacher is old, h
e is dead right when he characterizes this lesson in
humiliation as a "very dirty trick." After all, Holden knows full well that his essay was, in
a word, "crap." What is the point of forcing him to read its words
half of them garnered
from the
World Book

and half from his most personal obsessions: "The Egyptians were
an ancient race of Caucasians residing in one of the northern sections of Africa. The latter
as we all know is the largest continent in the Eastern Hemisphere. ... The Egyptians are

interesting to us today for various reasons. Modern science would still like to
know what the secret ingredients were that the Egyptians used when they wrapped up
dead people so that their faces would not rot for innumerable centuries" (11).

Righter tha
n he knows, Spencer replies, "in this very sarcastic voice," that "Your
shall we say, ends there (11
12)." What he fails to realize is that Holden's mind works by
association rather than by the rules which make for orderly, and passing, academic wor
and that, for him, all roads have a way of leading back to his brother Allie's death and to
Holden's deepest fear that he, too, might cease to be. Small wonder, then, that as Holden
"shot the bull" with Mr. Spencer
about how most people "didn't apprec
iate how tough it
is being a teacher"
he can't crowd out thoughts about the ducks who populate the lagoon
in Central Park and what happens to them when the water freezes over: "I was wondering
where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen ov
er. I wondered if some
guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew over."

At bottom, Spencer and Holden have radically differing agendas. Spencer is exasperated
because, as he sees it, Holden apparently has "ab
solutely no concern" for his future and
because he would like to bang some pragmatic sense into Holden's airy head. Holden,
meanwhile, has

to explain why he keeps getting bounced out of one prep school
after another ("I was surrounded by phonies"), b
ut in a world where young people are
supposed to be vitally concerned about their futures, where "playing the game" means
writing the sort of essays that teachers such as Spencer expect, and where fitting in is
much more important than sticking out, Holden

is destined to be written down as a loser.

Presumably Huck Finn, by contrast, had little choice as to how his life went. Given his
family background, his lack of education, and his diminished sense of self, he will always
defer to Tom Sawyer's charisma a
nd wonderfully inventive, playfully romantic
imagination. By contrast, all Holden has to do is "apply himself," and the success that
Pencey is grooming him for will be his. Which is rather like saying that all Holden need
do is quit being Holden. The probl
em is not only that Salinger's protagonist persists in
being a Salinger protagonist
that is, as cute as he is quirky, as pure as he is priggish
also that the world continues to provide ample evidence of its essential phoniness.
Consider, for example,

the wonderfully circular paragraphs that begin chapter 3:

Where I lived at Pencey, I lived in the Ossenburger Memorial Wing of the new dorms. It
was only for juniors and seniors. I was a junior. My roommate was a senior. It was named
after this guy Ossen
burger that went to Pencey. He made a pot of dough in the
undertaking business after he got out of Pencey. What he did, he started these
undertaking parlors all over the country that you could get members of your family
buried for about five bucks apiece.
You should see old Ossenburger. He probably just
shoves them in a sack and dumps them in the river. Anyway, he gave Pencey a pile of
dough, and they named our wing after him. The first football game of the year, he came
up to school in this big goddam Cadi
llac, and we all had to stand up in the grandstand and
give him a locomotive
that's a cheer. Then, the next morning, in chapel, he made a
speech that lasted about ten hours. He started off with about fifty corny jokes, just to
show us what a regular guy h
e was. Very big deal. Then he started telling us how he was
never ashamed, when he was in some kind of trouble or something, to get right down on
his knees and pray to God. He told us we should always pray to God
talk to Him and all
wherever we were. He
told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said

talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I can
just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few
more stiffs
. ... Anyway, that's where I lived at Pencey. Old Ossenburger Memorial Wing,
in the new dorms.


Ossenburger's funeral parlors may seem a prophetic vision of a franchised, mall America
to come, but they are also integrally linked to the essential th
emes of Salinger's novel.
The Catcher in the Rye

is a death
haunted novel, and in this regard Holden's account of
how he imagines Ossenburger does away with corpses echoes his earlier fascination
(obsession?) with Egyptian burial practices. Moreover, his c
oncern about the ducks in
Central Park (lest they die in the freezing cold of winter) is a thinly veiled way of asking
the question "Who protects life?" in a more personal way. For if there is, indeed, a caring,
ordering force in the universe
a God, if yo
u will
then that same power might keep the
dead Allie from rotting away, might protect his little sister Phoebe, and, by extension,
might save

Holden, in short, worries about the changes, the mutability, that the future represents, and
wants to believe in redemption, but not in the ways that Mr. Spencer would
understand the former or Ossenburger the latter. Instead, what Holden sees are
intimations of phoniness
in this case, a Pencey alumnus who cares more about self
aggrandizement than

about the boys who must suffer through his spiel in chapel, and who
is probably more concerned about the profit a corpse represents than about the person that
corpse once was.

Granted, Holden tends to stack the deck to prove that phonies run the whole show.
Ossenburger, for example, never had a chance
not after arriving at his alma mater in a
Cadillac. On the other hand, even sympathetic readers soon learn to take Holden's
etry of exaggeration into account when he remembers Ossenburger's speech as
lasting "about ten hours" and starting off with "about fifty corny jokes." Like the
recurrent "and all," we learn to associate his habit of exaggeration with his impatience,
ision, need for attention, and, most of all, with his version of the vernacular.

Exaggerations of these types travel under the wide umbrella of slang. Outright lies, by
contrast, are another matter, and many readers who can sympathize easily with Holden's

penchant for excess have little patience with his wholesale misrepresentation of the facts.
After all, what is one to make of a first
person narrator who freely admits that he is "the
most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. ... If I'm on my way to t
he store to buy a
magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to
the opera" (16). How is one to believe such a character, especially since everything is
filtered through his presumably unreliable sensibility? But Holde
n's "stretchers" are not
cut from the same phony cloth as the lies adults tell each other, and, more important, that
they tell to themselves. For Holden, so much of life is frittered away in trivial and boring
pursuits, and, after all, what could be a more

boring question than "where are you
going?," especially if the answer is "to the store to buy a magazine." By contrast, a
Holden Caulfield who just happens to be going to the opera is, by definition, a more
interesting character than his questioner.


while it is certainly true that his opinions about Broadway theater, Hollywood films,
or serious literature are less than consistent (for example, B movies have influenced him
far more than he admits, and his critiques of dramatic or literary works tell u
s much more
about him than about them), Holden generally reacts to the effects that art has on its
audience rather than to the art itself. Theater, for example, tends to make people gush out
affectations like "grand" (a word that sets Holden's teeth on edg
e), while novels are either
filled with interesting characters (Eustacia Vye of Thomas Hardy's
The Return of the
) or they are not (Hemingway's
A Farewell to Arms
). Films largely depend on
whom one is seeing them with: if it's
The Thirty
Nine Steps

nd the person is Phoebe,
then Holden is "knocked out." If, on the other hand, you end up killing time at a flick, any
flick, with a classmate from Pencey, it's likely to be a drag, a waste of time, and, in the
end, something that will really "ruin" you.

In short, Holden's inveterate lies are designed either to spare somebody else's feelings (he
told Mr. Spencer that he had to get "his equipment and stuff" at the gym, rather than
telling him the balder truth
namely, that he had just about enough of his br
owbeating) or
to keep the grimmer aspects of life (fears of death, of innocence's corruption, of profound
loneliness) at an arm's length. The latter include everything from Holden's claim that
Gary Cooper is on the other side of the dance floor (a lie that

makes Marty, a Seattle
secretary on holiday in New York City, "excited as hell" [74] but which tells us even
more about Holden's loneliness and boredom) to his insistence that he leave Mr.
Antolini's apartment because he left his "bags and all at the stat
ion" (192). One might
argue that he is sparing Mr. Antolini's feelings in roughly the same way that he had
earlier used a lie to spare Mr. Spencer's, but in this case Holden is warding off adult
corruption that is no longer restricted to the windows of Man
hattan hotels. The threats, in
short, strike Holden as real, immediate, and scary. Holden's penchant for exaggeration
operates on many of the same frequencies. Granted, adolescents tend to think that all
classes and certainly all lectures run longer than t
hey in fact do, and in this sense the
details of Holden's paragraph about the Ossenburger Memorial Wing strike the proper
and realistic chords. But I also suspect that Holden is the only Pencey student barking out
an obligatory "locomotive" who sees the mo
ment for the sham it surely is. For the others,
such cheers come with the territory of football games, just as a well
heeled donor like
Ossenburger does. Neither is worth a second thought, much less Holden's obsessively
righteous tirade.

But then ag
ain, Holden is on an ill
defined quest, and his fellow classmates are not. In
this sense, Holden's red hunting cap (similar to a baseball cap) is both concrete evidence
of how he doesn't fit into the Pencey mold and a symbol of the backwards (backwards,
cause he is hunting himself) hunt he will pursue in the wilds of Manhattan. Ironically
enough, it is also one of the few details that have dated rather badly since the novel was
first published, for in the early 1950s no self
respecting preppy would have s
ported an
army and navy store hunting cap, and he certainly wouldn't have worn it as Holden did:
"The way I wore it, I swung the old peak way around to the back
very corny, I admit,
but I liked it that way" (17

Now, of course, caps with peaks rever
sed are de rigueur, precisely the way with
preppies march their way to class, but they don't think of theirs as "people
shooting hats"
not, in the literal sense that he means to take up weapons and have it out with the
phonies, but rather that his back
wards quest will be made on behalf of innocence and that
he is prepared to blow away the opposition psychologically. Does Holden realize all this
at the moment he pulls Ackley's leg with his off
wall explanation? Of course not, but
like much that Holde
n says, truth speaks through the thin veil of put
downs and high

Besides, Ackley belongs to that class of people whom others quickly tab as "losers" and
then turn into pariahs. For such people
one thinks of Selma Thurmer, the headmaster's
, with her big nose and bitten
down, "bleedy
looking" fingernails
Holden can
tick off flaws with an uncanny accuracy, and still find room for compassion. Granted,
poor Selma is an easier case (she could make good conversation and better yet knew
damn well

that her father was a phony), but even an Ackley, despite his laundry list of
faults, is not finally beyond the pale. Why so? Because encrusted in Holden's description
of all that is unsavory, unpleasant, and just plain off
putting about Ackley is also
lden's recognition of a fellow loner, of somebody whose nastiness is simultaneously
overcompensation and defense:

He was probably the only guy in the whole dorm, besides me, that wasn't down at the
game. He hardly went
where. He was a peculiar guy. ..
. He was one of these very,
very tall, round
shouldered guys
he was about six four
with lousy teeth. The whole
time he roomed next to me, I never even once saw him brush his teeth. They always
looked mossy and awful, and he damn near made you sick if you

saw him in the dining
room with his mouth full of mashed potatoes and peas or something. Besides that, he had
a lot of pimples. Not just on his forehead or his chin, like most guys, but all over his
whole face. And not only that, he had a terrible persona
lity. He was also sort of a nasty
guy. I wasn't too crazy about him, to tell you the truth.


Ackley (whose very name suggests a play on "acne") is a public nuisance and a public
slob. By contrast, Stradlater, Holden's roommate, is the sort of boy that

schools like
Pencey are made for: good looking, athletic, well
rounded, and, above all else, absolutely
"normal." That Holden sees through Stradlater's facade is testimony to his highly
developed instinct for sniffing out undercutting details as well as a

sign of his insecurity.
He points out, for example, that Stradlater is a chronically bad whistler and moreover that
he "always picked out some song that's hard to whistle even if you're a good whistler, like
'Song of India' or 'Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.'
" (27). Even more damaging is his
conviction that Stradlater is a secret slob: "He always

all right, Stradlater, but for
instance, you should've seen the razor he shaved himself with. It was always rusty as hell
and full of lather and hairs and crap
. ... He always

good when he was finished
fixing himself up, but he was a secret slob anyway." (27)

Clearly, Holden does not miss the smallest unflattering detail, something that those
readers who hanker for him as a roommate tend to forget. The f
irst mistake, of course, is
to imagine that Holden is a living person rather than a literary character. However
successfully an author makes us believe in his characters (and on this score, Salinger has
been spectacularly successful), it is important to re
cognize the essential differences
between the illusion of a voice that tells us about his "madman weekend" in Manhattan
and the reality of an actual madman. Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's assassin,
apparently made this mistake in large and tragic ways.
Convinced that former Beatle John
Lennon was being corrupted by commercialism, Chapman felt the need to "save" him,
and so he murdered Lennon on a Manhattan street near the famous Dakota apartment
house where Lennon and his family had taken up residence. A
t his trial, Chapman read
the famous passage in which Holden first announces his plan to be a "catcher in the rye"
by standing at the edge of a field where children play and making sure that none fall off
the cliff. In Chapman's unbalanced mind, Lennon was

also in danger of "falling," of
becoming an adult rather than remaining, forever, an unspoiled child.

Most readers, however, restrict themselves to imagining what Holden was like as a three
old or to speculations about how he will behave when he hit
s thirty. There is no
particular harm in these musings, but neither are they likely to tell one much about
Salinger's novel.

The second mistake is a variation of the first, and begins by asking the question, "What if
Holden Caulfield were

roommate?" a
nd then going on to imagine the following
answer. "He'd

me, of course
because I'm

like Stradlater,

like Ackley. I'm
caring and sensitive and above all else,
" What this bit of speculation leaves out
is an understanding of how
Holden's ironic vision actually works. With the exception of
his dead brother, Allie, and his sister, Phoebe, practically everyone is put down as a

As the truism would have it, great art is in the "details," and whatever else
Holden might be, he is

a young man who is relentlessly uncompromising about the small
tics and generally unnoticed details that are the stuff of which phoniness is made. In fact,
if Holden were able to be somebody other than Stradlater's roommate, he would be not
only a disappo
intment but a disaster. That he would find indicators of phoniness (and
even the smallest whiff is enough to set off his highly sensitive phony detector) in yet
another Pencey student, in me, or in you is clear from Salinger's text. It is also one of
s more certain truths that people find what they are looking for, be they critics
hunting symbols or Holden finding phonies. To understand fully why this is so is to begin
a serious reading of the novel Salinger intended, and wrote.

In something of the s
ame way, the ability to distinguish appearance from reality or public
fronts from secret slovenliness is also reflected in Holden's one academic talent: writing
class compositions. Instinctively, unconsciously, he sees the world in concrete and
grabbing detail that the well
adjusted, happy
lucky Stradlater simply can't
understand. For him, a theme for an English class should be "descriptive as hell," and if
Holden is willing to write one for him, he should make sure that it isn't

: "That
sonuvabitch Hartzell thinks you're a hot
shot in English, and he knows you're my
roommate. So I mean don't stick all the commas and stuff in the right place." (28)

Small wonder that Holden is annoyed. People like Stradlater imagine that they're no
good at writing compositions because they aren't sure where the commas go, but Holden
knows better: creative writing requires the special relationship between author and
subject that Eudora Welty once characterized as "the heart's field."

This is true w
one is writing a novel or a "descriptive as hell" composition. And when Holden finally
turns his attention to the task, the result is an instance of what has come to be known as
the quintessential Salinger style:

The thing was, I couldn't think of

a room or a house or anything to describe the way
Stradlater said he had to have. I'm not too crazy about describing rooms and houses
anyway. 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


Stradlater can only come off badly when compared to the memories of Allie, but it is not
that he is a lousy whistler, a "secret slob" with a dirty razor, or even the sort of person
who borrows your sports coat and then stretches out the shoulders that brin
gs Holden's
confrontation with Stradlater to its moment of crisis. Rather, it is that Stradlater's good
looks and egomaniacal self
confidence have a sexual dimension, and on Holden's last
night at Pencey Stradlater has a date with Jane Gallagher, a girl Ho
lden respects and is
more than half in love with. In a word, Holden cares for her in ways that the self
centered, sexually aggressive Stradlater cannot. Holden "used to play checkers with her
all the time" (31) and what he remembers about these idyllic mom
ents from his past is
that Jane "wouldn't move any of her kings. What she'd do, when she'd get a king, she
wouldn't move it. She'd just leave it in the back row. She'd get them all lined up in the
back row. Then she'd never move them. She just liked the wa
y they looked when they
were all in the back row (31

Not surprisingly, Stradlater can understand neither why Holden should be so curious as to
whether or not Jane asked about him, nor why the way she played checkers is so
important. As he puts it,

for Chrissake!" But for Holden, Jane Gallagher's
kings in the back row are rather like the purity of snow in winter: "nice and white." In the
arithmetic of Salinger's symbolism, they suggest an aversion to risk, a need to be
for if on
e moves a king onto the playing field of a checkboard, it might, after
all, be "jumped." One could argue, of course, that the whole point of getting a king is to
use it
to jump other players and thus win the game. But Jane
like Holden, and
presumably lik
e Salinger himself
has problems with the common sense of competition;
she prefers to simply line up her kings along the back row and look at them. There is
something "nice," something static, about such an arrangement that motion and change
would only spo

One need not be a doctrinaire Freudian to see the sexual dimension of Holden and Jane's
checkers games, however muted by the essential innocence of that time, that place. The
present, however, is a checkers game of an entirely different color. As Hol
den puts it: "I
kept thinking about Jane, and about Stradlater having a date with her and all. It made me
so nervous I nearly went crazy. I already told you what a sexy bastard Stradlater is" (34).
What Holden fears, of course, is that Jane will move her k
ings out of the back row and
that Stradlater will "jump" her, that she will no longer be the sad, virginal girl he loves.
Even his best, most elaborate efforts to assure himself that the good
looking and smooth
talking Stradlater won't get to first base wi
th Jane, that she is cut from very different cloth
from the other girls he seduces so easily, have a way of falling flat, and of keeping his
deepest fear about the new (read: ruined) Jane Gallagher alive.

And so, Holden begins the first in a series of il
fated, increasingly desperate, and sadly
comic efforts to be the savior of innocents. When Stradlater returns from his date, Holden
launches into a self
styled inquisition, one that begins by asking if Jane still kept her
kings in the back row, and then
quickly cuts to the chase: "What'd you do? ... Give her
the time in Ed Banky's goddam car?" (43). That Holden should move from fighting words
to actually fighting is, under the circumstances, hardly surprising; that the gesture should
prove so pathetic ("I

got up from the bed, like I was going down to the can or something,
and then I tried to sock him, with all my might, right smack in the toothbrush, so it would
split his goddam throat open. Only, I missed" [43]) is equally predictable. Holden is
clearly n
o match for the Stradlater who puts up with Holden's initial assault (easily
pinning him to the bathroom floor), but who socks him when Holden, set free, calls him a
"moron." Holden hits the floor again
this time with his nose bloodied, but his righteous
indignation largely intact.

Holden, in short, is cut from antiheroic cloth; and as the gap between intention and result
widens, as he takes a cold, hard look at himself in the bathroom mirror, he begins to
realize first how ridiculous he now looks in his

red hunting cap, and then to admit how
lonely he is. Later, of course, Holden will talk about Pencey almost exclusively in terms
of how phony such prep schools in general are, but it is mostly his failure to "stand up"
for Jane Gallagher, to protect both
her kings and her virginity from the likes of Stradlater,
that prompts his abrupt late
night departure.

However, before his dramatic exit
one as ironically undercut as his fight with Stradlater
Holden spends a few revealing moments with Ackley. After a
ll, if Ackley practically
lives in

room, it seems only right that he should make himself comfortable in
Ackley's. Besides, how can Holden return to a room he shares with a "moron" like
Stradlater? Not surprisingly, Ackley rather resents Holden's intrus
ion, and things go from
bad to worse when Holden brings up the delicate matter of religion: "What's the routine
on joining a monastery? ... Do you have to be a Catholic and all?" (50).

The vision of a cloistered life without phonies, and, more important,
beyond the reach of
worldly corruption, is not unlike Holden's dream of a world where a Jane Gallagher keeps
her kings in the back row forever. Both, of course, demand that Holden renounce the
flesh, and he is at least curious about the possibility. Ackley
, being Ackley, misinterprets
his motives ("I don't care what you say about

or anything, but if you start making
cracks about my goddam religion, for Chrissake
" [50]), assuming that this is yet another
of Holden's annoyingly childish pranks.

But Hol
den is more than half serious about halting the clock that pushes him inexorably
toward adulthood. It is another instance of innocence under pressure, of Holden
desperately trying to fend off the changes that he associates with sexual activity, with

conformity, and, ultimately, with death. In later chapters, Holden will see the
tension between stasis and motion in terms of a succession of "falls"
all of them leading
backwards to the biblical Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve's fall into the tragic
dition of human experience. For now, however, Holden is simply casting about for
alternatives to the life that brings a Stradlater and a Jane Gallagher into conjunction.

Thus, Holden ponders becoming a monk and living between cloistered walls where, as
lton pointed out long ago in

tested virtues thrive. That, of course, is
precisely the point, because Holden imagines that monks are saints who live above or
beyond the world and never engage in its messier battles. Authentic saints, however
, are
made of sterner stuff, because their piety is generally the result of great religious struggle
and because their lives are such models of selflessness and sacrifice that they cannot be
measured by the usual human benchmarks.

In this regard, Holden
is hardly a saint, or even a good candidate for monastic life. What
his life does dramatize is something of the same difficulty mentioned earlier when I wrote
about Holden as a potential roommate. In roughly the same way that he races to the
conclusion tha
t others are phonies, he insists that those who put away childish things
inevitably become the enemies of purity. Holden, in a word, is a "prig"; a prig, as H. L.
Mencken once said of American Puritans, is someone who worries that somebody,
somewhere, is h
aving a good time.

Meanwhile, of course, Holden keeps plucking the same string marked loneliness: "I got
up and went over and looked out the window. I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost
wished I was dead" (48). And not surprisingly, what he thin
ks about
once he returns to
his room and the snoring Stradlater
are his fears that Jane Gallagher stood as little
chance against Stradlater's wiles as he did against Stradlater's fists:

I kept laying there in the dark anyway, though, trying not to think

about old Jane and
Stradlater in that goddam Ed Banky's car. But it was almost impossible. The trouble was,
I knew that guy Stradlater's technique. That made it even worse. We once double
in Ed Banky's car, and Stradlater was in the back, with his
date, and I was in the front
with mine. What a technique that guy had. What he'd do was, he'd start snowing his date
in this very quiet,

like as if he wasn't only a very handsome guy but a nice,

guy too. I damn near puked, listening
to him. His date kept saying, "No

Please, don't.
" But old Stradlater kept snowing her in this Abraham Lincoln,
sincere voice, and finally there'd be this terrific silence in the back of the car. It was really
embarrassing. I don't think he

gave that girl the time that night
but damn near.



Jane, presumably, arrived at that place on the other side of virginity where he pigeonholes
those who are no longer "innocent." About this suspicion
and it is only that
he is rigid,
ompromising, altogether the prig, and all without the slightest proof. Holden cannot

think about all that is lonely and sad
making and inextricably tied to Jane's innocence,
just as later he will not be able to dial her number when thoughts about "givi
ng her a
buzz" pop into his mind. But unlike Holden's penchant for disarmingly clear
eyed vision,
this self
righteousness is much more a curse than it is a blessing. For just beneath fair
knight Holden's shining armor is a spoiled, petulant, and self
ndizing young man.

Consider Holden's parodic litany, his stations of the cross, if you will, as he prepares to
leave Pencey: he packs his two Gladstones, including the new hockey skates his mother
had sent a few days ago (he had wanted the racing type), c
ounts up the gift money from
his grandmother (apparently, quite a wad), and sells his ninety
dollar typewriter for
twenty bucks. For one who had earlier considered the monastic life, Holden is likely to
have some considerable trouble with those orders that

require vows of poverty. As he
puts it, what he decided to do was to "take a room in a hotel in New York
some very
inexpensive hotel and all" and return home on Wednesday, "all rested up and feeling
swell" (51).

But Holden is scarcely one to skulk away
in the dark. What the moment requires is
nothing less than a dramatic, ear
rattling exit
and as Holden describes the scene, one can
see the various elements of his life at Pencey coming together: the paper
thin bravado
that lies behind his efforts at soph
isticated swearing, the strident nonconformity he
associates with his red hunting cap, the oversized, dramatic way he announces his
departure, the peanut shells that nearly spoil the moment by turning high drama into
farce, and, most of all, the "sort of c

When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs
and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don't know why. I
put my red hunting cap on, and turned the peak around to the
back, the way I liked it, and
then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, "
Sleep tight, ya morons!
" I'll bet I woke up
every bastard on the whole floor. Then I got the hell out. Some stupid guy had thrown
peanut shells all over the stairs, and I damn near

broke my crazy neck.


Of these elements, two deserve special mention as Holden's time at Pencey draws to a
close: the tears that will ultimately well up and overflow in the book's concluding pages,
and the word "crazy," whose nuances will turn increa
singly darker as he moves toward a
physical and emotional breakdown. For those who refuse to accommodate, to conform,
the world can be a scary, lonely place
as absurd, as crazy in its way as those who take up
arms against their sea of troubles. But there
are times when fighting against all that is
rotten in Denmark, or in Pencey, is all that a good man can do. For Holden, the
conformity demanded at Pencey may have set the stage and even arranged the props, but
Manhattan is where Holden's drama of innocence

and experience really unfolds.