(The following is an essay I wrote for With Love and Squalor: 13 Writers Respond to the Work of J.D. Salinger, edited by Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller, published by Broadway Books, 2001, and reprinted in Harold Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, 2009.)
The winter I was eleven, we were still living in New York City. I say still because my mother and I were moving to Canada the next year to live in a city called Toronto, which sounded about as far away from New York, where I had lived my entire life and where my father would continue to live, as any place I could possibly imagine. It was a sad winter for me, especially over Christmas vacation, when there wasn’t much distraction. I probably watched a lot of TV, but I had already watched so much TV in the first eleven years of my life that I was approaching the human limit. It might have snowed, I have a vague memory of a blizzard, but that would only have made the city more beautiful and me more sad. My sadness itself was mildly interesting – I told my friends that I was leaving the next year as if I were going off to a sanitorium – but I couldn’t devote an entire Christmas vacation to it. (I was only eleven.) So I read, probably with the television on, a lot of books.
I read whatever I could find in the apartment: A Member of the Wedding, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, Agatha Christies, and it was somewhere in there, that winter while it was maybe snowing outside, that I first met Holden Caulfield. Saw the hat, heard the voice. Stood with him at one end of the corridor at Pencey while he called out “Sleep tight, ya morons!” with tears in his eyes. Turns out, I never went to boarding school and never ran away from anywhere, didn’t stay in a hotel by myself until I was out of college, and never walked to the lagoon in Central Park at night, but I never stopped looking for Holden Caulfield. I looked on the steps of the Museum of Natural History, by the bandstand in the park, in taxis. Where I really searched for him was among the boys I knew; I was always finding the lost ones, the ones I could squint at through some haze of coffee steam and sarcasm until they became the guy in the red hunting hat. Somewhere in the back of my mind, where it’s always maybe snowing and the television’s on low, I still believe that any day now I’ll be running away with Holden.
I say all this because I’m probably not the only one. For me and I would guess a lot of other people, Holden Caulfield set the tone for a certain kind of long-lasting literary crush. It seemed impossible that I could ever fall out of love, that I could ever outgrow Holden. His voice provided an inner soundtrack that played in the background of my every romantic misadventure. It’s a scratchy, funny, knowing and know-nothing riff that makes you dream each new frog will turn into a prince but lets you know, with a cutting remark that sends you back on yourself, that you have, in fact, just kissed a toad. In Holden’s world, no one ever has to fall out of love because romantic love is always unrequited or impossible.
Rereading the book as an adult, I realized that all of the objects of Holden’s affection were unavailable. Who are they? Jane Gallagher, the girl of his memories now going to football games with someone else (it didn’t hurt my own crush that her name was Jane): his dead brother, Allie; his little sister, Phoebe, who loves him but is too young to understand his teenage angst (she loses patience with him for not liking anything); and the Museum of Natural History (“I loved that damn museum”). In Holden’s world, love is wrapped up like a mummy. His failing history essay is about the Egyptians, what they used “when they wrapped up mummies so that their faces would not rot,” and his visit to the Metropolitan Museum culminates in his showing two little kids the way to the mummies. I don’t want to make too much of the fact that Holden seems really to be looking for his own Mummy, or Mommy, who has been very distracted, or perhaps even dead to him since Allie died, but then again why not? I think this is at the heart of the book.
In Holden’s world, you can’t go back to childhood – that’s locked up in the Museum of Natural History, where Holden doesn’t make it past the front steps – but you can’t grow up either because growing up means becoming a phony. You can’t really fall in love because real love with a real person might be less than perfect (this is the adolescent’s dilemma), but you can’t really do anything but look for love. It’s a world in which if you really want to know the truth you can just get on a train and ride out west to a ranch. Of course, when you get there, the ranch might turn out to be Hollywood, or a psychiatric hospital. So maybe it’s better just to keep looking for romance, not truth – to keep falling in love forever.
So how did it happen? When did I start to fall out of love with Holden? It began, maybe, with rumors about Salinger, old J.D., as Holden might call him, the tales that were later solidified in books that I couldn’t bear to read. There was the affair with the Yale freshman when he was so much older; the orgone box; the drinking his own urine. If you really want to know the truth, I just didn’t want to hear about it. What does it matter, anyway? Who cares about writers? It’s the work that counts, right? But still, something seeped in, some stale smell of reality, or worse, depravity, that had always hung around Holden but that was more like a sharp cologne breezing off his preppy shoulders in the book, while in real life it just stank.
Maybe it was those stories that led me to pick up The Catcher in the Rye again a few years ago, when I was writing a screenplay about a teenage girl. Maybe this was the beginning of the end. Right away, I thought I’d found what I remembered: that voice, cocky and insecure, reckless and afraid, filled with jaded longing and innocent wisdom. There, on the second page, were two lines that summed up everything I had been feeling as I struggled to get my thoughts across in screenplay form: “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.” At a time when I was working out my own feelings about the relationship between film and fiction, I found Holden’s protestations funny and touching. All that ambivalence, the love-hate that gives the book its happy-sad tone, its aura of playful melancholy, I felt it conjured so much more than adolescence, but also American life, the stupid beautiful movie of it all. (Of course, Holden is actually obsessed with the movies – witness his death scene at the hotel – but he sees through the myths. This is what spoke to me while I was trying to reconcile what I loved about movies – the gorgeous surfaces, the layering of sound and image, the dreamlike power of enacting events – with what I liked about books: the interiority, the ability to radically, and inexpensively, compress and expand time, the feeling of traveling through consciousness, the intimacy. I never did figure out how to get my ideas across in screenplay form, and eventually I ended up turning my script into a book. But that’s another story.) Hey, I thought, this is great. Here I am, back with the snow and the TV on, everything comfy and witty and poignant and familiar.
So imagine my surprise as I began to read further, and, with the so-called wiser perspective of adulthood, I discovered that The Catcher in the Rye isn’t really a book about a smart-funny-preppy New York teenager running around town by himself for a few days looking for romance or at least understanding, but that it was a book about a suicidal smart-funny-preppy New York teenager. It was all about death.
My revelation came slowly. I just started noticing all the references to death, and many specifically to suicide. It’s pretty innocuous at first. There’s the “It killed me” on page two about D.B. being in Hollywood, and then, at the bottom of the page, the talk about the football game: “you were supposed to commit suicide or something if Pencey didn’t win.” On page four Holden tells us he “got the ax,” and by page five that “you felt like you were disappearing.” Still only on page five, Mrs. Spencer asks Holden, “Are you frozen to death?” and the next thing you know he’s being ushered into Spencer’s room, where the old man appears to be lying, practically, on his death bed.
I didn’t make too much of this, but then the references really started piling up, like, say, dead bodies. On page nine, Holden talks about gray hair; on page eleven, about the mummies; on fourteen, about a remark Spencer makes, “It made me sound dead, or something.” On page seventeen, “That killed me” reintroduces the recurring phrase that I eventually counted at least thirty-five times, and by page twenty, “You were a goner.” On page twenty-two, Holden says of his hunting hat: “This is a people shooting hat… I shoot people in this hat.” And so on, and so on.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I’d remembered that Allie’s death figured in the book, that some of Holden’s mental state was a response to his loss, but I hadn’t realized the magnitude of it, the scale and depth and burden of his despair. For the first time it occurred to me perhaps why Holden’s hunting hat is red: because Allie had red hair. And I saw new meaning behind Holden’s comment that “I act like I’m thirteen.” Although hhes sixteen when the book takes place, he was thirteen when Allie died. I’d never understood Holden’s urgent desire to know where the ducks went in the winter when the pond froze, but now I got it; he wanted to know where Allie had gone, and where he could find his mourning and unavailable mother.
Holden’s mother, Mrs. Caulfield. There’s somebody I’d thought about for maybe one second. I’m not even sure I could have told you whether she appeared in the book. Turns out she does, in the scene where Holden returns home and talk to Phoebe. Actually, right before Holden comes home, he imagines his own funeral and feels especially sorry for his mother because “she still isn’t over my brother Allie yet.” In the middle of his conversation with Phoebe (during which Phoebe says several times that “Daddy’ll kill you” when he finds out that Holden’s been expelled again), their parents come home. Holden hides in the closet and his mother questions Phoebe about the cigarette smell in the room: “Now tell me the truth,” she says. I could hear her saying that a million times, to the point where naturally Holden would begin his confessions with the line, “If you really want to know the truth.” He’s talking, in a sense, to his mother.
Of course the kind of truth Holden’s mother is asking for isn’t Holden’s brand of truth. He cares about emotional truth, and perhaps this is what resonates so strongly for kids when they first encounter the book, the recognition that there’s a difference between the two kinds of truth and that negotiating between them marks the beginning of the end of childhood. The first half of the novel reads like a descent into the truth at the center of Holden’s solitude. His journey from the school to the hotel to hiding from his mother to the lonely encounter with the prostitute culminates in the punch from Maurice and Holden’s acting out a death scene from the movies: “I sort of started pretending I had a bullet in my guts,” he says. He pictures himself staggering around, plugging Maurice, and having Jane come over and bandage him while holding a cigarette for him to smoke. It’s a sendup of everything phony that Holden hates, but a revealing display of his true feelings at the same time, his gunfight fantasy, he’c concealing the fact that he’s been shot; in reality, he’s been trying to hide his despair. At the end of his B-movie reverie, whether or not we want to know it, he finally tells us the truth: “What I really felt like, though,” he says, “was committing suicide.”
Holden’s admission marks the halfway point of the book. He spends the second half trying to find someone to talk to about his feelings, someone who really wants to know the truth. He tries the chilly Sally, the condescending Luce, the gentile, intelligent Phoebe, who responds with all her love but who’s too young and innocent to see that he’s desperate, and finally, his ex-teacher Mr. Antolini, who lectures Holden and then proceeds to make a pass at him. And why does Holden seek out Mr. Antolini? Because he was the one who finally picked up that
boy that jumped out the window I told you about, James Castle. Old Mr. Antolini felt his pulse and all, and then he took off his coat and put it over James Castle and carried him all the way to the infirmary. He didn’t even give a damn if his coat got all bloody.
So there it was: the boy of my dreams wasn’t so funny after all. He was miserable. That killed me.
I mention all this death stuff not as a way of saying that there should have been more teen hotlines in the 1940s but to describe how completely different the experience of reading The Catcher in the Rye was for me after so many years. It was like running into an old boyfriend and realizing that not only has he lost all his hair or gained fifty pounds, but that he was always bald or overweight or depressed or hostile or just plain crazy, although you had no idea at the time. It was, frankly, a little unnerving, but humbling as well. I didn’t actually love The Catcher in the Rye any less; I just wasn’t in love with Holden anymore.
And I appreciated the book in a new way. In understanding its darkness, I could see it as more than a beautifully effective or fully imagined coming-of-age story, but as a work of almost gothic imagination. As Leslie Fiedler says, all of American literature is fundamentally gothic. In the end I found references to death on almost every other page, and this relentless awareness of death, and the language of death, of common phrases that embody darker meanings, this language obsessively alert to itself, seems to me the sign of something closer to art than not. Thoreau said that “Writing may be either a record of a deed or a deed. It is nobler when it is a deed.” I do think that The Catcher in the Rye is a noble book. Messed up, but noble.
So what about Holden? I’m not in love with him anymore, but do I still love him? Last week, I took my eighteen-month-old daughter to the Museum of Natural History for the first time. We saw the canoe, the whale, the dioramas. She ran around pointing at everything and squealing and the guards were incredibly nice and the lights were soothingly dim and everything smelled musty just like I remembered and, with the exception of a few exhibits, it seemed as though nothing had changed since I’d been there as a kid, and probably since Holden had walked the halls.
Toward the end of our visit my daughter got tired and stretched out her arms and said, “Up.” I picked her up and held her for a little while and then we got ready to go, and as we strolled out onto Central Park West and I felt the huge gray museum sleeping solidly behind us, I thought about Holden. I thought about his name, about how he just wanted to be held. And I thought about how physical books are, how you can hold them in your hands. When you’re young, and you read a book, it seems to hold you, creating a world around you, but then as you get older, you can hold onto it; your own world takes on a life of its own, bigger than any book but able to contain many world, many stories within it. Maybe that’s what makes a book great, if you can grow up with it, never outgrow it exactly, but find a way to pick it up over the years and form a new connection.
As I pushed my daughter’s stroller into the park, she started to fall asleep, and the image of the museum melted into the trees. But before it disappeared completely, I thought I could see Holden, the boy in the hat, the one I first fell in love with, and the boy all alone, the one I just wanted to put my arms around. I thought I could see him, waiting for me on the steps.
In response to my last blog post about the closing of Lascoff’s Drugstore, I received the following email from my father recounting his own memories of Lascoff’s:
“I never did tell you about my memories re L. During my teen years I spent many hours in my father’s drug store which was located in the poorest section of Phoenix. Grandpa was a pharmacist and subscribed to the most popular of the pharmacy trade journals. During the hot summer days when we had no customers in the store I would read his trade journal. Each issue had a column written by a distinguished New York pharmacist who was a leader in the field. The comparison between New York which seemed so amazingly exciting to me and Phoenix in those summer days with no air conditioning was just incomprehensible. The New York pharmacist owned one of the most outstanding drug stores in the country. The column was always bordered by a large picture of his store with its huge sign, you guessed it. It said Lascoff’s.”
Reading this prompted me to look for some old photographs I have of my grandfather’s drugstore, which was called Norman’s Pharmacy. I know I have them in a light blue envelope. I’ve been meaning to get them framed for years. They are beautiful black-and- white snapshots of the exterior of the store, which had an old time diner feeling to it. The black in the photographs is inky and elegant. The edges of the small photos are scalloped. I have spent much of this morning looking for that blue envelope. I can’t find it anywhere.
On my search, however, I did come across something else I’ve been looking for for years: an issue of Alfred Stieglitz’s photographic quarterly Camera Work. I found it at the 6th Avenue flea market a long time ago. It is called a Special Issue because it is devoted to the work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, with accompanying articles by Miss Gertrude Stein, “an American resident in Paris”. It is dated August, 1912.
In his editorial note, Stieglitz says that while this issue contains fourteen reproductions of representative paintings and sculptures by Picasso and Matisse, it is the two articles by Stein that are the “true raison d’etre of this special issue”. Here is a picture of the beginning of Stein’s article on Matisse:
Her “article” is a representation in words of Matisse’s work. It is a Matisse, by Stein. As Stieglitz notes: ”These articles … will doubtless be regarded by many as no less absurd, unintelligible, radical or revolutionary than the so-called vagaries of the painters whom they seek to interpret.” And so they were.
Here is a passage from her piece:
“Very many were not listening again and again to this one telling about being one being living. Some were listening again and again to this one telling about this one being one being in living.”
Overall, an interesting morning. From a 1940s pharmacy in Phoenix, Arizona to Paris and New York in 1912. The past is the past is the past.
A friend’s comment on my last blog post — that she remembered from our high school days how much I loved John Ashbery’s work — sent me back to the lines of his I quoted on my yearbook page. I still think it’s such a beautiful passage. It’s from a poem with a great, funny, wise title: The Wrong Kind of Insurance:
Yes, friends, these clouds pulled along on invisible ropes
Are, as you have guessed, merely stage machinery,
And the funny thing is it knows we know
About it and still wants us to go on believing
In what it so unskillfully imitates, and wants
To be loved not for that but for itself:
The murky atmosphere of a park, tattered
Foliage, wise old treetrunks, rainbow tissue-paper wadded
Clouds down near where the perspective
Intersects the sunset, so we may know
We too are somehow impossible, formed of so many different things,
Too many to make sense to anybody.
The revisiting of my high school days via this poem coincided with my noticing that a New York City landmark, Lascoff Drugstore, is closing. My memories of it pre-date high school– we lived near the pharmacy when I was very young. I used to pass by it all the time on my way to Central Park, where I would play in the “murky atmosphere” Ashbery describes, among the “tattered foliage, wise old treetrunks”. So Lascoff’s is connected in my mind to the playground, those childhood strolls, erranding, observing the “rainbow tissue-paper wadded/ Clouds down near where the perspective/ Intersects the sunset”.
Lascoff was a cathedral of a drug store, with huge arched windows filled with large glass containers of jewel-colored bath balls that I loved to stare at from the street. Inside, the ceilings were dizzyingly high and the atmosphere was hushed. Pharmacists in their white coats did solemn work among the Mason Pearson hairbrushes. I was probably feverish half the time we went there, waiting for a prescription for an antibiotic, and that may account in part for my heightened, vivid memories of the place.
Here is a photograph of it today:
I realize that this closing of an old drug store is merely the stage set of New York City being shifted around, but it feels “impossible”. Too much to make sense to anybody.
Twenty-one years ago I received a letter from a writer I admire deeply: the poet John Ashbery. Yes, a letter. I had published a review of his work in The Voice Literary Supplement and his response to me was a defining moment in my life as a writer. At the time, I was just starting out, writing fiction for no-one and writing book reviews to pay the rent (first in New Haven, later in Hoboken). His communication gave me some confidence that I was not completely wasting my time. Of course, he was talking about my criticism, not my fiction. Still, we were having a conversation, of sorts, and it was about writing. This seemed promising.
A later encounter with him helped me on the fiction front too. I wrote to him thanking him for the letter and he suggested that we meet for lunch. He lived, I think may still live some of the time, in a white brick building in Chelsea. I remember walking down the block toward the building with intense anticipation. We went to a restaurant called Man Ray. It doesn’t exist anymore. I was very nervous. He talked about his recent medical problems. I had no idea how to talk to him about about writing. Mainly, I was tongue-tied. But I did speak to him a little bit about my attempts at fiction since finishing college, and how I felt that all of the criticism I had studied at school was getting in my way, distracting me from feeling free enough to find my voice. (I had gone to college in the 80s, so I was steeped in Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and also the work of many brilliant non-deconstructionist, non-semiotician professors too, but critics nonetheless.) I said: “I guess I have to try to forget all of that stuff.”
He looked at me very gently and said, “Maybe not forget, just ‘put aside’.” That change of phrase and perspective enabled me to do precisely that, to put aside what I had learned, and to write a book in a voice that I felt was my own.
I think by now I have forgotten much of the literary criticism I studied in college. I remember the lunch with Ashbery.
The jungle is a labyrinth of immense, muscular, twisted talks in the midst of which rats make their hairy nests, spiders spin enormous webbed cathedrals, and gargantuan coconut crabs remain motionless for days.
TIGHAR exploring the island, click here.
IWAE p. 65, 66
Photo is from flyawaystimulation, click here.