Holden Caulfield: An Old Soul?

The Catcher in the Rye

Yes, at times Holden Caulfield is a whiny little dude – typical of many teenagers; however, I can’t help but find pieces of an old soul in him.  In recently rereading J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I came across a passage that I had underlined when I was sixteen revealing Holden’s thoughts as he visits a museum.  I remember using it in the oral report I gave in tenth grade.  Apparently, it had held some significance to me then and I found it rather odd that it continued to have significance all these years (actually decades) later:

The best thing, though, 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…Nobody’d be different.  The only thing that would be different would be you.  Not that you’d be so much older or anything.  It wouldn’t be that, exactly.  You’d just be different, that’s all.  You’d have an overcoat on this time.  Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner.  Or you’d have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger.  Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom.  Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them.  I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean.  And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.

Something about the passage makes me forget Holden is only a teenager.  When I was in grade school, my class would visit the Dayton Museum of Natural History on a regular basis.  And, yes, everything was always the same.  I can still remember scenes and images from those visits.  I’m sure they wouldn’t be there, now (although I can imagine).  Even if I could go back and see everything the way it was, I would be different – and most of that difference would be due to years, perhaps not just years, but life itself – that happens during the years.

Reading a favorite novel, thirty years later, can also make me realize what’s different – and what’s still the same.

Edith Wharton: All Souls’

9♠  9♠  9♠  9♠  9♠  9♠  9♠  9♠  9♠

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

I finally chose the nine of spades which corresponds to Edith Wharton’s short story “All Souls’ “.  Until now, I’ve never read anything by Wharton; however, I’ve seen the titles of a few of her novels often throughout the years – novels like Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, and The House of Mirth.  She gives me the impression of being the Jane Austen of turn of the (twentieth) century New York.  That’s why I was surprised to find out that she wrote a number of ghost stories.  Based on this one story, she doesn’t hold a candle to Edgar Allan Poe on the scary scale, but she’s worth reading.  I would welcome reading more.

The narrator describes her cousin, Sara Clayburn, as a widow living in an old New England home with a handful of servants.  The story is relayed by the narrator based on events told to her by her cousin.  Sara meets a strange woman on her way home one dark evening. The scariness of the story comes from Wharton’s writing as Clayburn wakes up the next morning to find everyone in her home gone.  The majority of the narrative comes from her wanderings and musings and confusion over the empty house.  This doesn’t sound frightening, but as with the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Wharton solidly catches the reader’s imagination and mind as to hold them in suspense not knowing what might be around the next corner or in the next room or looking in from outside through a window.

The only part of the story that seemed unnecessary came at the end when the narrator blames the happenings on Sara’s maid, Agnes – who is mentioned from time to time in the story. Apparently, Agnes came from a background in which her ancestors dabbled in the supernatural.  The narrator makes a giant leap from the strange events to Agnes, the maid. It did nothing for the suspense or scariness that had just been rendered to the reader with such vividness.

J. D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye (and ramblings about banned books)

I first read J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye when I was sixteen and I’ve been cussing like a sailor ever since.

No, I haven’t.  I’m just kidding. (Really – I don’t).  But in honor of Banned Book week, I thought I would reread it.  It’s been a long time since I was sixteen and I was curious whether the novel would hold up as well now that I’m an adult – and a much older adult.  I have teenagers of my own, now.  I even read the same copy that I had bought at a Walden’s Bookstore when  I was sixteen.

The Catcher in the Rye

I think my passion for being free to read the books that I want to read comes from having read a few books like The Catcher in the Rye that are surrounded by controversy.  When I read them, I found the novels to be significantly deeper than their critics gave them credit. Sometimes the expression “missing the forest for the trees” comes to mind when I hear why some would want to ban books.  For some reason, when I was sixteen, I could see passed the profanity to find the character of Holden Caulfield and Salinger’s writing style fascinating.

In the case of Salinger’s novel, the protagonist was the same age as myself when I read it the first time.  I have no doubt that much of the novel’s ability to resonate with people has to do with the fact that we were all teenagers once – struggling to figure out our place in the world when the world doesn’t always seem to make sense.  I remembered Holden’s siblings D.B., a writer in Hollywood, and Phoebe, grabbing for the gold ring on the carousel.  I didn’t even remotely remember that he had a younger brother, Allie, who had died.  All these years later, Holden’s attempts to deal with his brother’s death brought a new sense of depth to his musings.

I’ve been thinking about books that high school students read.  The Catcher in the Rye may or may not still be on the reading lists, but, in my opinion, it’s a novel that has all the makings of great literature in a way that allows teenagers to relate to it.  I recently read George Eliot’s Silas Marner and discovered it to be fantastic; however, I don’t think I would have had the appreciation for the story and Eliot’s writing when I was sixteen.  I’m not  sure I would have been able to put forth the effort to read it the way I could now that I’m a more mature reader.

I’m probably rambling as much as Holden does in the novel.  One of his traits that I’ve remembered over the years is his dislike of movies.  When I was a teenager and even for most of my adulthood, I’ve enjoyed movies, but in recent years, I’ve discovered that I’ve become less and less interested in them.  I was a little surprised that this gave me more of an affinity with Holden than even when I was a teenager.

And I can’t finish this post without a few words about the banning of books.  I fully support the right of parents to monitor what their kids read – especially younger kids.  At the same time, when I think about how much I enjoyed Salinger’s story (and it was the story I enjoyed, the profanity was part of Holden’s character – but it wasn’t the story), I can’t imagine not letting my  16 or 17 year-old read The Catcher in the Rye.  I’m grateful to my public high school for including this and some other banned books on our reading list. Nobody was forced to read these books, but they were available for anyone who wanted to. I believe in the freedom to read and I believe in the freedom not to read.  I’m fairly comfortable in my ability to make that decision for myself.  I don’t need any “governing body” making it for me.

The Cruise of the Jolly Roger

9♦  9♦  9♦  9♦  9♦  9♦  9♦  9♦  9♦

I was in the mood for some Kurt Vonnegut brilliance and I wasn’t disappointed with his short story “The Cruise of the Jolly Roger”.

Nathan Durant, a war veteran, sets sail in his cabin cruiser named The Jolly Roger to visit a few small New England coastal towns.  During his first visit, he encounters a group of artists that invite him to lunch.  He doesn’t exactly fit in and even though they make some feeble attempts to show respect, their attitude tends to be, in a word, snooty.  They condescendingly laugh at the name of his boat considering it too cliché for their tastes.

Durant moves on to the next town where he searches for people who knew an old army buddy killed during the war.  In spite of it being his buddy’s home town, not many people remember him.  However, his friend does have a small patch of grass in the middle of town named after him.  And as it’s Memorial Day, children are paying their respects to those who have died.   In struggling to come to terms with the situation, Durant listens to a grade school boy’s speech:

“He died fighting so we could be safe and free.  And we’re thanking him with flowers, because it was a nice thing to do”

The boy’s sentiment seems a little simple, a little cliché – but simple and cliché are not always bad.  It worked for Nathan Durant.  And it kind of works for me.

John Steinbeck: The Pearl

John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl in many ways appears to be a fable.  The morals of this fable are buried probably as deep as the pearl (from the title) was buried in the ocean.  But I like that.  I like a story that can stand on it’s own and not just as a tool to teach something.

Kino and Juana find a treasure in a giant pearl.  The prospects of what their life could be with the sale of this pearl become an obsession for Kino, if not quite for his wife.  Kino hears evil music while his wife hears the “Song of the Family”.  Juana fears the pearl more than she is attracted to it.

Something about The Pearl reminded me of another story – one more epic – where a “precious” piece of jewelry is central to the plot.  Steinbeck’s story ends a little more tragically.

Now that I’ve read my fourth Steinbeck novel in a row, I think it’s time to move on to something else.  But I’ll be happy to return to him, soon.

John Steinbeck: The Red Pony

John Steinbeck’s short novel The Red Pony at first glance seems to be a simple story about ten year-old Jody Tiflin and his life on a California farm.  Steinbeck beautifully describes so much of the details of this farm life from Jody’s chores to his mother’s meals and his father’s work in addition to the mountains and the animals that surround Jody’s world.

Some deeper ideas emerge as the four separate stories that make up the novel begin to come together.  From the perspective of the child, Jody, adults break some promises made to him.  From the perspective of some of the adults in the novel, they make promises to Jody they know they cannot guarantee.  Steinbeck’s description of the wild look in the eyes of the farmhand, Billy Buck, as he takes drastic measures to not go back on his promise ranks as one of my favorite scenes, in spite of the horrific actions Billy takes.

The relationship that Jody has with his father is somewhat shaky although there is a certain amount of respect on both sides.  As with many adults, they don’t like seeing the world become a different place for their kids.  They rely solely on what they know and with what they are comfortable.   Mr. Tiflin gets a taste of his own medicine when his father-in-law comes to pay a visit and talks incessantly about his life moving west to California. Jody’s mother makes an interesting observation when she describes her father’s life as being finished before he dies.  A “nameless sorrow” describes the Grandfather’s world as seeming to crumble when he finally made it all the way west to the ocean – there was nowhere else to go.

I’m becoming more and more appreciative of the realities Steinbeck is able to paint into his stories.  His realities are not always happy but I’ve found them profoundly stirring.

John Steinbeck: Tortilla Flat

In twenty years, it may be plainly remembered that the clouds flamed and spelled DANNY in tremendous letters; that the moon dripped blood; that the wolf of the world bayed prophetically from the mountains of the Milky Way.

And so Danny, John Steinbeck’s Arthurian hero in his novel Tortilla Flat, becomes a legend – to his band of knights and to the people of this impoverished community set above Monterey, California.

In the novel’s introduction, Steinbeck makes the Camelot comparison; however, Danny and his round table have a more morally ambiguous way of life than the Arthur I remember. Steinbeck manages to meld together an innocence to the worldly ways of these men that makes them heroes in their own manner, nevertheless.

Not having a real plot, the novel begins as Danny inherits two houses making room for his friends, Pablo, Pilon, Jesus Maria, The Pirate (and his dogs) and Big Joe Portagee.  One of the funnier scenes early on in the book has the men light a candle for St. Francis in one of the houses. As St. Francis is known for forsaking his worldly possessions, the candle promptly sets the house on fire burning it to the ground – leaving Danny and his friends with only one house. They make do.

Many of the men’s actions have the distinct purpose of obtaining more wine and the cheaper they can get it, the better.  They sit and tell stories to each other with the agreement that the better stories do not have morals or lessons,  as Pablo responds to one of the stories:

‘I like it,’ said Pablo.  ‘I like it because it hasn’t any meaning you can see, and still it does seem to mean something.  I can’t tell what.’

Given that some of Steinbeck’s writing leans toward the plight of the poor and his politics appear to fall into a more socialistic camp (literally and figuratively), I’m not sure he won any political points with this rag-tag group of guys; however, I found the story very enjoyable.