Guest Author - Siobhain M Cullen
I went looking for Holden Caulfield in some of JD Salinger’s lesser-known works (Nine Stories) and this is what, or who, I found in answer to several puzzles: Why are so many readers still looking for Holden Caulfield from Catcher In The Rye? Do they want to know where he went and what happened to him? Or how he turned out? I think maybe people want to know...did Holden turn out to be a phony too? Did his youthful, slicing perceptiveness for discerning truth from artifice let him down - because that is an inevitable consequence of growing up?
Teens are in the enviable position of scrutinising the world, the adults in it and the behaviours that enable citizens to mould to its pre-requisites, from the safe vantage point of a warm roof over their heads and parents who pay the bills.
So, with a Holden-like dismissive attitude, teens can scoff at the worker who doffs his cap to an exploitative boss in order to keep a roof over his children’s heads. They can label as ‘fake’ the phony persona or iron-pumped physique a sports celebrity puts out in order to bolster a flagging career, or the botox-enhanced facial mask of an aging model with low self-esteem. Surely, teens have a sure-fire method of ‘telling it like it is!’ Later in life this attitude may not win them many friends or contracts though.
Teens have a safe bolthole from which to scrutinize the authenticity of the adult machinations that keep the world moving around them. All too soon, they too will have to fly the warm nest of parental approval and endure a baptism of fire in a world which has ‘certain expectations’ for those who wish to earn a decent living. They will need to adapt their behaviours to fit the world of work and relationships - in a world where success and schedules are facilitated by people ‘getting along.’
This freshness of eye and innocence of outlook seems to be where JD Salinger sticks, even in his lesser-known works. My personal response to 'Nine Stories' included an appreciation of this honesty of youth, and the enjoyment of quips such as one particular witty, catty reference to another novelist's work! In looking for Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s collection of short stories ‘Nine Stories’ I found several characters who display some, but not all, of Holden’s strengths and weaknesses.
One was a youth, Franklin, who was not much older than Holden, but who was more wordly-wise, having being exposed to only one or two bruising real-world experiences. Retreating from those, Franklin, the youth in ‘Before The War With The Eskimos’ seems to have taken refuge back in the family nest, therefore becoming trapped in a time-warp of adolescence. In breaking out from an unsatisfactory situation away from home, but then getting paralysed by an inability to move forward with his decision, he may remind the reader of Holden. His dishevelled appearance however,is not.
Looking for Holden Caulfield in the Nine Stories collection characters isn’t easy either though. There are many male characters in the stories, and some of Holden’s characteristics may be perceived by different readers in each of them, whether the character is a small boy playing Cowboys and Indians or a sufferer of mental problems, now grown older and back from the war.
In Before The War With The Eskimos (1948), there are two characters but three possibilities for an alter-Holden. Ostensibly, the story is about two high school girls who regularly play tennis together on Saturday mornings. One girl, Ginnie, fed up with being ‘stuck for the cab fare home’ on every occasion accompanies her friend home to her apartment in order to collect her owings in person, and gets to meet the girl’s brother and his friend. The reader may wonder which youth is more like Holden Caulfield, an occupation which adds even more entertainment value to puzzling out the hidden meanings in this, and other, stories.
Selena’s brother Franklin may remind readers of Holden, because of his juvenile appearance and manner. Salinger is careful to point out that it is difficult to gauge his age, however. He first appears in the doorway of the living room, mistakenly believing his friend Eric has arrived to take him out. He is dishevelled, with ‘bed-hair’ and slipper-less. The unshaven Franklin is cradling something in his chest – it turns out to be very sore finger. He plaintively tells the fifteen year old Ginnie that he cut it ‘to the bone’ while searching for something in a waste-paper bin full of razors.
Franklin’s childlike anxiety and aggrieved manner, however, belie his age for we later find out that he must be at least twenty-three, as he has given up college and a few years work in an Ohio airplane factory. Readers may wonder whether his insistence that Ginnie must be hungry after her tennis game, and his subsequent offer of a day-old chicken sandwich from his bedroom, is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield’s ‘responsibility issues’ for his own younger sister in Catcher in the Rye.
The other character is the rather more dapper Eric. On arriving to collect Franklin for a show he too recounts a sorry tale to Ginnie. He insists he does not want to talk about it and then proceeds to do just that and tells her all the details of the writer he befriended, squeezed into his tiny apartment and ran errands for. It turns out the writer made off at dawn with all Eric’s wordly goods without even saying 'Thank-you.'
Both youths are whingers, their passivity perhaps reminiscent of Holden’s random experiences during his breakout from boarding school, but Ginnie is a winner. She has decided to do something positive and assertive in her own situation. She will ensure she is not the loser in the cab fare scenario. While Eric’s naievete and incessant warbling about seemingly inconsequential matters (such as the origins of Ginnie’s camel hair coat) may evoke memories of Holden Caulfield’s willingness to prattle to all he meets, it is the narrator who has Holden’s almost narcissistic powers of observation, eye for detail and cold detachment.
The third possibility then, is that Holden is the narrator, aka JD Salinger, aka Ginnie. Interestingly of course, Ginnie is a girl and an extremely pre-possessing one at that. Echoing Holden’s speeches of admiration for his sister’s talents, we again hear the voice of control, power and stability emanating from the female.
From her vantage point of cool poise and quiet assertiveness she surveys the morass of the victim mentality beneath her, Selena’s excuses for non payment of the cab fare, Franklin’s inability to stick at anything and Eric’s bad judgement. It is clear she has more poise and self-sufficiency than Holden ever had. Interestingly, after her conversations with the unkempt Franklin about the futility of signing up for the war draft, Ginnie decides to find a reason to return to her friend’s apartment in the evening and not to press for her owings after all. She also decides not to throw away the stale chicken sandwich she has secreted in her expensive camel hair coat pocket. It appears she has difficulty in letting things go....