After reading yesterday’s post, the Lady of the House, who is an exotic foreigner and sometimes unfamiliar with common rites of passage in American cultural life, asked me why The Catcher in the Rye was ever banned. I’m not really sure, I responded. I assume it was somehow shocking to mid-century sensibilities. Like most people, I had to read the book in high school English class, but it didn’t impress me then and I’ve rarely thought about it since (except for that one time). But while browsing some literary blogs later on, my eye was caught by a link to a post asking if Salinger’s novel was still relevant on the occasion of his 100th birthday. With the Lady’s question still fresh in my mind, I thought that maybe I would find something informative there.
Holden is Patient Zero for generations infected by his misanthropy. We live in a world overpopulated by privileged white guys who mistake their depression for existential wisdom, their narcissism for superior vision.
I’m not sure how this residual naïveté lingers in my soul; I can’t say why, just because I was visiting the column of a Washington Post book critic, I thought I might find something more interesting than another woke sermon. More fool me, though. It’s just the usual potpourri of clichés, presented, as always, by a not-at-all overcompensating middle-aged white man hoping his fervent testimony keeps him one step ahead of the intersectional tumbrils. Caulfield represents the monochromatic past; the new hotness in young-adult literature is a book about a black French-Canadian boy who moves to Texas (whether these cosmetic traits make the book interesting or not is a question left unaddressed). Salinger’s reclusiveness suggests mental illness — the bad kind, apparently, the kind that would make you avoid social media, not the sympathetic kind that can be talked about endlessly on social media and used as the cornerstone of an entire identity. And, of course, Salinger was an abusive creeper, which we no longer tolerate in the era of #MeToo. For those obsessed with the trendy and topical, everything, even a paean to diversity, becomes an excuse to think and talk about themselves and the moment they inhabit. As Auden said, Any heaven we think it decent to enter/Must be Ptolemaic with ourselves at the center.
It’s quite funny because again, just yesterday, I learned that Holden was allegedly the harbinger of Marxism and nihilism in America, the spearhead of a leftist plot against decency and family life; today, I’m told that he’s actually the epitome of white privilege, emblematic of the bourgeois insularity that has oppressed so many for so long. How can he be both at once? Is he a rabbit or a duck? Is he a vase or two people kissing? Whatever the case, at least we can all agree that he’s to blame. If only his name had been Wayne.