When I was a junior in high school, I had an outburst in my English class. It was the day before Thanksgiving break, and we were sitting in a circle, meant to be discussing Their Eyes Were Watching God, a book I had read very carefully and knew I had not really understood. A girl I knew full well hadn’t even opened the book raised her hand and said that the tree on the front cover of the edition we’d been assigned represented fertility and womanly sensuality.
So I raised my hand and when Ms. Gottlieb called on me, I said, “Really? The cover of the book? Did you even read any of it?”
Suddenly I felt that kind of out-of-body anger fused with embarrassment and disbelief to be dizzying. I heard myself continuing: “No one even reads the books, and then, instead of just sitting here quietly, you all raise your hands and say some made up thing from Cliff Notes. Why are you even taking this class?” No one responded, so I kept talking. I was so excited and nervous and relieved to be saying all of this aloud that I worked to keep from shaking visibly. “Everyone’s in this class so you can get honors credit but you don’t even like to read.” I ended with what I considered to be the world’s greatest indictment: “Holden would hate all of you.”
Years later, when I was a high school English teacher myself, exhausted, behind on grading and college recommendations, just trying to keep chaos from breaking out on that awful half-day of school before Thanksgiving, I thought of Ms. Gottlieb. She had been young, kind, quiet, smart. I had really liked her, and although at the time I’d thought I was doing her a favor, calling out my classmates so she wouldn’t have to, I realized I’d likely ruined her lesson plan, and likely her day.
I taught The Catcher in the Rye to high school juniors. Although many of the books I taught were ones I myself had read in a high school class, I’d found Catcher on my own the summer between sophomore and junior year in high school, devouring the novel in one afternoon. I’d started reading lying on my stomach, and by the time I was finished, the pink carpeting in my childhood bedroom had left marks on my bare skin and my back ached. And, hyperbolic though it feels to write as a thirty-five-year-old, when I put the book down I felt for the first time that, in Holden, I’d encountered someone who understood me. That summer I was busy doing everything I was supposed to: riding my bike to my job at the local bookstore, training daily for the cross-country team, completing my AP European History summer assignment, going to driver’s ed classes, babysitting my little brother, and nervously speculating with my friends about who might be hosting a party the coming weekend.
Before I taught Catcher that first time, I’d carefully organized my notes and planned out the writing assignments I’d give in conjunction with each unit in my AP Language class. I was a second-year teacher, twenty-five years old and teaching an AP class for the first time, so I ran my unit plan by my colleagues. The man who was teaching the other section of the class told me the best thing to focus on would be the symbolism of the ducks.
I’d read Catcher a dozen times by then. When, for high school graduation, my parents gave me a cell phone, my voicemail message was simply me reading, deadpan, a passage I thought was hilarious from the beginning of the novel when Holden says: ”One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window.” For years, I’d loved saying that something was “coming in the goddamn window.” But, I did not remember anything about ducks.
“The ducks in Central Park are a symbol,” he told me smugly.
I decided instead to teach Catcher as part of a unit on the individual at odds with society.
Unsurprisingly, some of my students liked the book and others found Holden annoying. Whiny was the word they used, or a hypocrite. Instead of asking them to write literary analysis papers, potentially about ducks, I asked them to describe a physical location from their childhood that looked different through their teenage eyes, the prompt pulled from Holden’s visit to the Museum of Natural History when he observes that “the best thing…in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.”
Some of my students mimicked Holden’s voice, their essays full of italicized words and 1950s slang, and others wrote earnest, sincere essays just on the good side of maudlin. But, when I asked my students to reflect on their writing at the end of the year each student felt the writing about the dock at the town lake or a grandmother’s backyard was among the best he or she had produced all year.
It’s possible that many of these same students who wrote beautiful narrative essays also thought begrudgingly of the hours I forced them to spend reading about Holden and phonies. Sometime between my outburst in eleventh grade English class and starting grad school at twenty-three, I learned that it was embarrassing to admit to admiring, or even liking Salinger. When I tried to defend the importance of the novel in the high school classroom, I often said something that made perfect sense to me but no sense at all to anyone else. “The thing I realized when I read the book as an adult,” I’d say, “is that Holden is probably not going to be okay.”
What I meant was: the book is more complicated than it seems. There is more at stake than Holden’s expulsion from school and hatred of phonies and questionably symbolic ducks. More at stake even than what the platitude of “end of innocence” can possibly convey. What I meant was: sometimes when I taught this book, I’d look out at my classroom full of sixteen-year-old students, some of whom were struggling just like Holden, some of whom were lucky enough to only empathize with how Holden hurts, and some of whom wrote dark, frightening stories, and I would realize with a start that there was no guarantee they would ever be okay.
The best piece of writing I’ve ever read about The Catcher in the Rye is Charles D’Ambrosio’s “Salinger and Sobs.” The essay is about D’Ambrosio’s brother’s death by suicide and about the underlying threat of suicide that runs through so many of Salinger’s stories. By the time I read the essay, I wasn’t teaching anymore, but if I had been, I’d have brought the essay in to work through with my students. The school where I’d most recently taught was reeling from the recent suicide of one of my former colleagues, a young, well-liked English teacher who seemed to connect most with students who themselves were most vulnerable. I read the essay just a few weeks after attending his funeral with my infant daughter. I stood in the back of the service, bouncing her on my hip, watching confused, pained teenagers who had arrived on chartered busses. I held my daughter and I watched his parents. Had there been a time when they’d realized their son was not okay?
“What’s salient in The Catcher in the Rye,” D’Ambrosio points out, “is that Holden achieves a fragile truce between hating himself and hating the world,” suggesting that Holden’s love for his little sister Phoebe and his deceased brother Allie isn’t just about them embodying innocence, but that love is a means of refusing suicide: “As long as he keeps that love immaculate, as long as he defends and protects it and maintains its purity he’s alive, and that’s what I mean by suicide refused.”
Part of the reason I find the end of the novel so moving is that we see this refusal in real time. There’s a moment when he feels himself start to hate his little sister, Phoebe, the character he’s romanticized as innocence. “All of a sudden I wanted her to cry till her eyes practically dropped out. I almost hated her,” he says, and then realizes, “I think I hated her most because she wouldn’t be in that play any more if she went away with me.” By the end of the chapter though, he’s sitting in the cold rain, affectionately watching her ride around and around on the Central Park Zoo’s carousel, resigned to going home so as to preserve what might remain of her childhood.
In the year my colleague and I shared an office, I noticed that he was closest with the students who were struggling profoundly. Out of the corner of my eye while I graded papers or helped students revise theses, he talked about music and poetry and movies and football with students I suspected needed something more (the guidance counselor, for example). In some ways, this was the kind of new, young teacher I’d been, and so I understood. When my colleague died, I thought angrily of these vulnerable students, those least equipped, I imagined, to face the trauma of suicide. After I read D’Ambrosio’s essay I wondered if there was something of Holden’s attempts to protect Phoebe, his old friend Jane, the memory of Allie as a means of suicide refusal in these relationships with struggling students.
At one point, D’Ambrosio speculates that students are taught Holden avoids his parents because he’s afraid he’ll be in trouble for failing out of Pencey, but that Holden’s real struggle is that he has no real home to which he could return in an emotionally meaningful way. I’m not sure if some students are taught, as D’Ambrosio theorizes, that Holden doesn’t go home because he’s avoiding parental consequences, but I do think D’Ambrosio is right to point out something central that’s often overlooked or left unsaid: that Holden’s expulsion, not just from Pencey, but from childhood itself means he never will have a place to go. D’Ambrosio claims what “makes The Catcher in the Rye something special, an intense and fierce and intimate look at a character who arouses in readers—me, let’s say—a level of sympathetic identification…” is that Salinger has enormous empathy for a character whose source of suffering is feeling “too much.”
When I first read The Catcher in the Rye, I was certain that I was just like Holden. That we’d be conspiratorial friends, rolling our eyes at the phonies in Ms. Gottlieb’s class, if only he were real. But, when I taught the book, I realized something different. There are different ways to feel too much.
I had a routine I liked to do, even with my advanced students. I’d often read the first chapter of a new book aloud, and we’d take breaks to talk about what the author was doing with language, how the opening pages often set the stage for rich, complex analysis. Then, at the end of the book, if I could swing the timing, I’d ask them not to finish the book at home, and we’d read the end together in class and go back to what we’d written down on that first day. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to hear about is…all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” Holden tells us, “but I don’t feel like getting into it.”
Catcher both begins and ends, as D’Ambrosio points out, with silence. I was standing in front of my AP Language class, reading the last chapter of Catcher to them, enjoying the lilt of Salinger’s language and the camaraderie we’d built as a class by that point in the year, when the book’s last line, one I’d read in dozens of student papers and seen in dozens of online study guides, took my breath away. “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” This is the silence D’Ambrosio sees Holden employing as a last line of defense against suicide. But, he hasn’t managed to be silent. He’s narrated the book. Holden might not be okay. I had not understood this ending when I fell in love with the book all those years ago: I’d assumed that, because my adolescent feelings of sadness and nostalgia and alienation were manageable, his were, too. Holden’s expulsion from childhood is in some ways routine. The falseness of the adult world, the feeling of being alienated from both childhood and adulthood, and a simultaneous desire to mock and seek out human connection are hallmarks of adolescence. But, Holden’s expulsion from childhood is also circumstantial. His little brother died of cancer. To write off Holden as an angsty adolescent is to misunderstand the real losses he’s suffered and to underestimate how torn he is between a desire to connect and the desire to separate.