By the time I read Catcher in the Rye, H0lden Caulfield may well have become too popular for his own good. He couldn't possibly live up to his own reputation, and he didn't. I didn't dislike the novel, but I knew far too much to be enchanted. But then, few are really "enchanted" by the guy.
I was probably forty or so, pretty much past the adolescent angst and anxiousness that characterizes Caulfield, who is, next to Huck, one of AM lit's most famous kids. Even though he made his appearance early in the 50s already, Holden Caulfield seemed to carry with him a far more of a Sixties-ish sensibility, a sad, societal drop out who would have headed to San Francisco had he stumbled into puberty a decade or two later.
No matter. Somehow, the guy spoke to millions, worldwide. Thousands know him better than I do, but I've always assumed he attained iconic status in American lit by nature of his paradoxical self: he made himself impossible to love, in spite of the fact that he wanted that love more than anything. Seems to me that I know people like that, tons of 'em, in fact.
Catcher in the Rye is an indisputable American classic for a ton of reasons, one of which is that it somehow catches the temper of the time. But that's not the whole story. The bigger story is that Salinger created a distinctive voice, a character who, by the words of his own mouth became--actually became--a human being so real that, not that long into the novel, millions of readers, worldwide, heard that voice come from their own hearts and souls. Just recently, with a whole different character, Marilyn Robinson did the same thing in Gilead. Read those books and it's as if you're somewhere in the room. There's a genie between the covers; somebody is really telling you a story.
Whiny, messed up, irreverent, not particularly fun to be around, Holden Caulfield is pretty much of a loser. Strange that he should be so celebrated. And yet, what he deeply and sincerely wants out of life is seemingly so little--and so much what most of us do: he'd love, once again, to be a boy, to start the whole mess over in empty fields and sunshine with his sweet little sister.
Honestly, I can't say I loved Catcher in the Rye the first time I read it. As I said, it likely couldn't live up to it's own headlines. But despite my shrugged shoulders, Holden Caulfield will always be there in the scrapbook that holds my most memorable characters, fictional and real, because there are times--trust me--when I feel just like him, sick of the crap, and wishing once again with all my heart to grab my baseball glove off the hook in the back hall and walk a half a block east to the diamond, where my buddies are gathering for another great pick-up game, the sun shining in the damp lakeshore air. I know that feeling. I know it well.
J.D. Salinger is gone, died a few days ago at 91 years old. That's almost another story.
Holden Caulfield lives, believe me.