Recently I finished J.D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.
I'd not read it during my high school years, and it had been on my list for too long.
In short, I loved it. And I loved it even more after doing some research into what critics had said and not said about it.
Catcher was birthed into a social political context of opposition-between East and West, between capitalism and socialism and of decolonisation. The novel was written in 1951, and just four years later it had sold five million copies. Not a bad effort on Salinger's part.
I've been reading around Catcher, into much of the criticism written about the novel back in the post-war era. Strikingly, critics tended to use universalist statements to talk about the major themes of the text, and failed to interrogate and critically engage with Catcher's immediate historicity. In short, a book written in the juiciest part of the post-war era, was not considered a book about the post-war era.
Catcher became a novel about "the horrors of modern life" and "a typically heartbroken adolescent," rather than about the institutionalised class distinctions that pathologied homosexuality, denied African American veterans access to housing and created wholly 'white' middle class suburbs in which men and women were expected to fulfil gendered role expectations, marry and have 3.2 children and realise their individuality through their consumer choices.
Understandably in the post war context, so we're talking 1945 onwards, American's were feeling particularly disillusioned and vulnerable. With the "red scare" or fear of a totalitarian communist regime looming, the government, namely Richard Nixon and Harry Truman were intent on ensuring that American's were kept in a perpetual state of heightened arousal... just enough to ensure that they would continue to spend what they earned. Nixon and Truman also wanted to ensure that third world nations that were newly emerging as independent and 'free' from imperial control would look to America for the model as to how a 'free' society should operate.
Elaine Tyler May has written an incredible book about families in the Cold War era. Homeward Bound explores the ideology of domesticity that, led by Vice President Nixon, was premised on the idea that capitalism's superiority could and would be realised (and the threat of communism avoided, or at least deflected) through the reorganisation of society around domestic consumption and a suburban utopian lifestyle, lived in accordance with gendered role expectations. The state sold domesticity to the people as the ideal through which security and sought after meaning could at last be located. The nuclear family in the nuclear home became the most tangible symbol of post-war democratic abundance.
Robert Fishmann also wrote a quite excellent book. Bourgeois Utopias suggests that suburbia was a utopian site in its own right because it promised freedom from the corruption from the city through a return to nature and restoration of harmony. The suburb derived its power from its capacity to express wealth, abundance, independence and in the freedom that could be realised through making consumer choices that satisfied inner wants. Interestingly however, post war suburbia was predicated, and derived its utopian status through the principle of exclusion. Corporate work was excluded from the suburban residence, tamed yet abundant greenery was contrasted with the polluted city scape, women defined by their role as homemaker within the home were excluded from the world of productivity and power, white populations were excluded from black ones, heteronormativity excluded and pathologised homosexuality. The affluent middle classes in their suburban residences were alienated from the capitalist, consumer world that they themselves were creating.
Holden knew that there was something askew. He knew that Nixon and Truman's promises of security and democratic abundance were rubbish...he knew they were "phonies."
In the opening chapters Holden speaks to us about Old Ossenburger, and it's probably one of the funniest streams of narration in the text, and it's worth quoting at length from Catcher, for the laughs.
Prior to leaving Pencey Prep, or rather being kicked out of the college, Holden remarks on “Old Ossenburger, this guy that went Pencey,” that had the memorial wing of Holden’s dorm named after him.
Holden says that Ossenburger, “made a pot of dough in the undertaking business after he got out of Pencey.” Holden has no respect for Ossenburger, viewing him as a man of little integrity, claiming that he “probably just shoves them (his dead clients) in a sack and dumps them in the river.” Holden recalls back to the first football game of the season, wherein Ossenburger came up to the school, “in his big goddman Cadillac,” and made a speech, “which lasted about ten hours.”
“He started off telling us about fifty corny jokes, just to show what a regular guy he was. Very big deal. Then he started telling us how he was never ashamed, when he was in trouble or something, to get right down on his knees and pray to God. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he 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 give him a few more stiffs. The only good part of his speech was right in the middle of it. He was telling us all about what a swell guy he was, what a hot shot and all then all of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me, Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart. It was a very crude thing to do in chapel and all, but it was also quite amusing.”
But wait... perhaps Holden's adolescent language, his crude judgements and his hyperbolic accusations point more to the truth underscoring his rejection and to the much larger and more insidious implications of those that used and abused their class privilege.
Holden’s adolescent lens renders his critique of Ossenburger with far greater clarity than had he claimed that “this man claims legitimacy for his money, his Cadillac, his business ethic, his eminence and class privilege by enlisting religion on his side.” Holden is deeply perceptive to the economic and social arrangements of capitalism that afford someone like Ossenburger social privilege and upward mobility and it is the fart, the antithesis of decorum and ceremony, that Holden welcomes and celebrates. The fart is an assertion of the body and an assault on ceremony and rigid social convention and exposes Ossenburger’s hypocrisy, as it directly opposes the false morality that legitimises his illegitimate actions through an appeal to religion.
I could go on, but perhaps I'll come to the point that is; the tendency of critics, throughout the post-war era, to universalise Holden's predicament, minimise and reduce to it to a "spiritual sickness" or a discussion of the "human condition" fail to promote meaningful engagement with the utopian fantasy that was the capitalistic, work to consume ethic, the legislations that excluded women, African Americans and homosexual’s from realising full social participation and pathologised those that transgressed and challenged class privilege.
Holden, through his adolescent language and severe judgements of those who occupy positions of power and utilise their class privilege to manipulate and reproduce their power, exposes the radical insufficiency of and fundamental flaws in Nixon and Truman’s malevolent myth of classlessness and the promises of freedom inherent to the domestic ideal.
Fishmann, Robert. Bourgeois Utopias. Basic Books: New York, 1987.
Medovoi, Leerom, and Duke University Press. Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity. New Americanists. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Back Bay Books: New York, 1951.
Tyler-May, Elaine. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. Harper Collins: 1988
Image courtesy of: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/salingers-letters-by-nils-schou-book-review-losing-sight-of-the-catcher-in-the-rye-author-a6758901.html