- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2001

J.D. Salinger, our most famous literary recluse, has not encouraged his publisher, or anybody else for that matter, to make a big fuss about the fact that "The Catcher in the Rye" is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Mr. Salinger's other fiction is largely unread, but Holden Caulfield continues to be the anti-hero of choice for one generation of adolescents after another. As a result, "The Catcher in the Rye" has probably posted higher sales figures than any other serious American novel; and this is as true now, at a time when it clips along at a brisk, 250,000 copies a year, as it was when the book first appeared in l951.

What accounts for "The Catcher in the Rye's" phenomenal success? No doubt it has something to do with the way that young readers identify with Holden Caulfield, the novel's confused, desperate, funny, and ultimately lovable protagonist. In his war against everything that is phony and sad-making, he provides an etiquette book for those who see themselves reflected in his doomed situation and a point of reference for those who have, for better or worse, moved beyond the pains of adolescence to those of adulthood.

Granted, some particulars have changed during the past 50 years. Wearing a cap backwards, as Holden defiantly does, is no longer seen as a gesture of rebellion but rather as the way things are, for virtually everyone in the under-20 class. But where it matters, really matters, Holden continues to speak for those who are confused about where they fit into the larger scheme of things; or if they, in fact, want to fit in at all.

The poet Theodore Roethke once pointed out that adolescence is an "ill-defined dying, a longing for another place and time, another condition." Without realizing it, he has described precisely what makes Holden tick, and why he is perhaps the one literary character who can successfully compete with film, music video, computer games, and the assorted junk that teen-agers encounter when they go "malling."

When we last see Holden in the pages of the novel that is, he is resting up from his "madman" weekend in Manhattan. Things do not look especially encouraging, but at least a part of Holden is willing to "apply himself" as his parents shop around for yet another prep school that will enroll him. And given the realities of college admissions, then and now, one suspects that Holden will land a seat in some college classroom. Money, after all, speaks very loudly in such matters, and Holden's parents are loaded. But Mr. Antollini, the only teacher Holden remembers with any fondness, has other worries about Holden's future. He can imagine him, at the age of 30, sitting in some bar "hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college." Or he wonders if Holden will pick up just enough education "to hate people who say, 'It's a secret between he and I.' " Finally, he can envision Holden in some business office, "throwing paper clips at the nearest stenographer." Not very attractive possibilities, to be sure, but entirely consistent with the priggish, pain-in-the-rear aspect of Holden.

And yet, not even Mr. Antollini, savvy as he is, could have imagined Holden cashing a Social Security check but that is partly what the 50th anniversary of "The Catcher in the Rye" prompts us to think about. No doubt it is wiser, far wiser, to let novels stop where they, in fact, conclude, and not to play parlor games about what might, or might not, happen down a road that the fiction did not go. Easier said than done, however, when a character such as Holden Caulfield seems so lifelike, and exercises such a grip on our collective imagination.

The "Catcher in the Rye" has withstood everything that 50 years of censorship and the popular culture could throw at it. It remains, a novel that comes alive whenever readers, young or old, give themselves over to Holden's altogether captivating voice: "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 …"

Those who hear echoes to the opening lines of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" are not wrong. Indeed, taken together, these novels chronicle how painful it is to grow up whether one is floating down the Mississippi or hailing a cab in midtown Manhattan. Innocence is always under siege by con men and scoundrels, by phonies and hypocrites. That, alas, is the world, and why we love characters who resist its corrupting force. And that is why thinking about Holden Caulfield on "Social Security" he would have been the first one to point out that the term is an oxymoron is at once sad and oddly bracing. Sad because those of a certain age are vividly reminded of time's relentless grip, and bracing because the novel's power still lives on in those encountering Holden for the first time.

Sanford Pinsker teaches in the English department at Franklin and Marshall College. He is the author of "The Catcher in the Rye: Innocence Under Pressure."

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