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One of the most distinctive characteristics of Jerome Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, is the fact that, ever since being published for the first time in 1951, it had instantly won an immense popularity with readers.
According to Whitfield (1997): “Within two weeks (after the first publishing), it had been reprinted five times, the next month three more times… His (Salinger’s) book stayed on the bestseller list for thirty weeks” (567). The reason why it turned out to be the case has been discussed from a variety of different perspectives.
Nevertheless, even today, most critics do agree with the suggestion that the key to Salinger novel’s popularity is the fact that in it, author had gone about exploring a number of clearly controversial subject matters, such as the issue of adolescent sexuality, for example. As it was pointed out by Kaplan (1965): “Since its (novel’s) publication, a large mass of critical opinion has grown up around this controversial novel. Most of the criticism has resulted from Salinger’s use of profanity in the text” (6).
We, however, do not subscribe to such point of view, because there are good reasons to believe that the actual explanation as to this novel’s iconic status is the fact that in The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger had succeeded in revealing the set of psychological traits, the endowment with which causes a particular individual to emanate the aura of historicity.
In this paper, we will aim to substantiate the validity of such our hypothesis by drawing parallels between the psychological makeup of novel’s main character Holden Caulfield and the psychological makeup of young Adolph Hitler, exposed in August Kubizek’s book The Young Hitler I Knew, as we believe that it is namely the behavioral sameness between the two, which intensified novel’s mystique more than anything else did.
Just as Volkswagen Beetle’s association with Hitler had helped this car to become a symbol of the whole generation of baby boomers, the fact that the character of Holden Caulfield can be best referred to as ‘Hitler-in-making’, had helped securing Salinger novel’s unwavering popularity with the readers, often despite their conscious will.
The reading of even few initial chapters of The Catcher in the Rye, leaves no doubt as to the fact that Holden’s foremost psychological trait was his acute sense of existential idealism and his perceptional sensitivity. And, just as it is usually the case with just about all idealists, Holden appears being endowed with a number clearly perfectionist urges. This partially explains Holden’s almost pathological loathing of filth – throughout novel’s entirety, Holden never skips an opportunity to express his revulsion of uncleanliness.
At the beginning of Catcher in the Rye, there is a memorable scene in which Ackley tries to engage in conversation with the narrator, without realizing the fact that in Holden’s eyes, his ‘individuality’ was not reflected by his imaginary sex-escapades, but rather by his poorly kept fingernails: “He started cleaning his goddam fingernails with the end of a match.
He was always cleaning his fingernails… I guess he thought that made him a very neat guy” (12). Apparently, Holden’s filth-related subconscious anxieties represented an integral element of his existential mode – in narrator’s mind; people’s affiliation with filth reflected their lessened value as society’s members.
In his article, Rosen (1977) came up with essentially the same observation: “From the start, Holden’s mind has been filled with images of rot and decay…And it is this obsessive concern of Holden’s which accounts for the concentration of his narrative upon details of bodily functioning, dirt, and decay-filthy fingernails, mossy teeth, smelly socks…” (550).
The reading of Kubizek’s book, points out to the fact that, just as it was the case with Holden, young Hitler also strived avoiding being exposed to filth, as his life’s foremost priority: “Even more than from hunger, he (Hitler) suffered from the lack of cleanliness, as he was almost pathologically sensitive about anything concerning the body. At all costs, he would keep his linen and clothing clean” (81).
It is well worthy noticing that another person of great historical significance – Napoleon, also could not stand filth. In its turn, this strengthens the validity of paper’s initial hypothesis even further. Apparently, it was not simply by an accident that Salinger wanted to represent his main character as someone repulsed by uncleanness – given the fact the Holden also tended to think of a society as ‘phony’, it was only the matter of time before he would set himself onto the path of combating society’s ‘evils’, upon reaching an adulthood.
In its turn, this explains the essence of Holden’s academic failures – the actual reason why Holden decided to leave Pencey did not have as much to do with his inability to excel in studies, as it had to do with narrator’s tendency to view the purpose of these studies as being excessively pragmatic: “All you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac someday…” (70).
Just as it was the case with Hitler, who despite being a talented painter, had failed at entering the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts, Holden also had failed at securing an academic future for himself, despite being rather intellectually advanced individual for his years. In all probability, by exposing Holden as someone averted by studies, Salinger subtly implied that narrator’s destiny had little to do with the prospect of him attaining education-related conventional happiness, as it is the case with ordinary people.
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In its turn, this would explain why novel’s ending leaves much uncertainty as to Holden’s future: “I’m supposed to go to next fall… But I don’t feel like it. I really don’t. That stuff doesn’t interest me too much right now” (114). As we are well aware of, Hitler never became an architect, as he originally intended.
Instead, he became someone who produced a deadly blow on Communism, from which this political ideology was never able to recover. And, despite the fact that The Catcher in the Rye does not provide us with much of an insight on what would happen to Holden in the future, we can deduce that he would never become a conformist. And, it is namely those with non-conformist socio-political attitudes, who have a chance of leaving mark in the history.
Thus, we do not quite agree with critics who imply that Holden’s rather non-conformist and utterly idealistic perception of love and sexuality should be thought of as the foremost indication of his immaturity.
Whatever the presumptuous it might sound – there are good reasons to think that narrator’s hypertrophied sense of sexuality-related idealism should be considered as an indication of him being a particularly valuable citizen, as it is specifically the sheer strength of people’s animalistic urges, extrapolated in their tendency to hump everything that moves, which reflects their lessened ability to function as productive members of society. One would only need to venture into just any ethnic ‘ghetto’ to realize the full validity of this statement.
Apparently, Holden’s perception of love and sex has never been affected by currently predominant ‘fashion’, in regards to these matters. As a sensitive and idealistically minded young man, Holden was subconsciously aware of the fact that sex is nothing but the instrument of love and that it is a mistake to imply both notions being essentially synonymous, as many of today’s ‘progressive’ teenagers do.
The soundness of this suggestion can be explored in regards to novel’s scene in which narrator expounds on how he felt while holding hands with Jane: “I held hands with her all the time, for instance. That doesn’t sound like much, I realize, but she was terrific to hold hands with… You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not. All you knew was, you were happy. You really were” (43).
In Holden’s mind, his love of Jane was just too pure and perfect to be tainted by the thoughts of sex. And, the reading of Kubizek’s book leaves very few doubts as to the fact that, just as it was the case with Holden, young Hitler also tended to think of his love of Stefanie in purely platonic terms, while considering the very idea of having sex with her as utterly offensive.
Stefanie’s mere smile would make him perfectly happy: “Stefanie had no idea how deeply Adolf was in love with her… When she responded with a smile to his inquiring glance, he was happy… When Stefanie, as happened just as often, coldly ignored his gaze, he was crushed and ready to destroy himself and the whole world” (32).
The scene, where Holden meets prostitute Sunny and ends up paying her for nothing, is being suggestive of the fact that it is specifically due to narrator’s moral repugnance towards the idea of women selling their bodies for sex, that he did not fool around with her: “The trouble was, I just didn’t want to do it. I felt more depressed than sexy, if you want to know the truth” (52).
The same can be said about young Hitler, who never ceased rejecting Kubizek’s insistence that he should have tried sex with a prostitute – apparently, Germany’s future dictator could never bring himself to even consider the possibility of having sex with a hooker, due to the sheer strength of his genuine repugnance, regarding the idea: “For this spreading of prostitution he (Hitler) blamed not only those actually practicing it, but those responsible for the prevailing social and economic conditions…
Ever and again he tackled the problem and searched for a solution whereby in the future any kind of ‘commercial love’ would be rendered impossible” (119). Just as Holden, Hitler thought of sex as the instrument of love, which is why he strongly opposed the idea of having sex for money.
The parallels between the character of Holden and young Hitler can also be outlined in how they both regarded the issue of homosexuality. Apparently, for both of them, the thought of having sex with a man was beyond understanding. In Salinger’s novel, the theme of Holden’s homophobia is being continuously referred to, throughout its entirety, as narrator never ceases to define homosexuals of ‘perverts’.
Holden’s poorly concealed homophobia reaches its climax in the scene where Mr. Antolini advances him in his sleep: “I woke up all of a sudden… I felt something on my head, some guy’s hand. Boy, it really scared hell out of me. What it was, it was Mr. Antolini’s hand” (103). After having realized what was the real motive behind such Antolini’s move, Holden simply ran away from his former teacher’s house, as if was trying to run away from hell.
Essentially the same situation is being described in Kubizek’s book, as well – after having realized that an older men, which he initially thought of as a friend, was in fact homosexual, seventeen years old Hitler became horrified to such an extent that he swore to his friend to never stop fighting this kind of sexual perversion with all his might: “Adolf explained this phenomenon (homosexuality) to me.
Naturally this, too, had long been one of his problems and, as an abnormal practice, he wished to see it fought against relentlessly…” (120). Without being able to win over Jane, and without being able to fall in love with any other girl, Holden did not have any other choice but to become a loner. Nevertheless, it is quite impossible to agree with critics who suggest that, as novel’s plot unraveled, it was becoming increasingly harder for Holden to deal with his loneliness.
As a true stoic, Holden had grown to derive pleasure out of savoring his own misery. While being a sensitive individual, narrator had made a point in denying his sensitivity to himself and others – hence, proving himself more of a man then novel’s superficially ‘manly’ characters, such as Maurice, because it is specifically men’s ability to keep emotions under control, which has traditionally been considered as the foremost proof of their manliness.
Apparently, Holden thought of himself in very high regard, which is why he never sunk quite as low as socializing with those whom he considered spiritually alien and intellectually primitive for too long. And, as history shows, those men who were able to singlehandedly affect its course, have always been ‘lone wolfs’. While explaining the essence of Hitler’s loneliness, during his years in Vienna, Kubizek states: “It was not arrogance that held him (Hitler) back.
It was rather his poverty, and the consequent sensitiveness, that caused him to live on his own… He had too high an opinion of himself for a superficial flirtation or for a merely physical relation with a girl” (120). And, what do idealistic men with a touch of genius do, once they find themselves in position of being powerless to ‘improve’ the surrounding reality? The answer is – they create their own ‘dream-world’, where they hide, while waiting for their time to come.
Throughout Salinger’s novel, Holden is being repeatedly exposed as someone who never held a grip on objective realities and someone who, instead of addressing life’s challenges practically, simply preferred fantasizing about how he should have proceeded with addressing these challenges.
For example, after having been punched in the stomach by Maurice, Holden imagined himself being some sort of a romantic hero, who was just about to pull out his gun at start shooting at the offender: “I pictured myself coming out of the goddam bathroom, dressed and all, with my automatic in my pocket… He’d (Maurice) see me with the automatic in my hand and he’d start screaming at me… Six shots right through his fat hairy belly” (56).
When Sally asked Holden about what would be his plans for the future, had she chosen to marry him, Holden came up with utterly unrealistic suggestion that they could run off to Massachusetts or Vermont and stay in the cabin, while living off the land: “We could drive up to Massachusetts and Vermont, and all around there, see… We’ll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that till the dough runs out” (71).
Even later in the novel, Holden continues to refer to the idea of living off the land in the cabin as perfectly plausible: “I’d build me a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life” (107).
In a similar manner, young Hitler never ceased toying with utterly unrealistic ideas as to how he wanted to proceed with his life in the future. As it appears from Kubizek’s book, Hitler was absolutely serious in his hope of winning the lottery, which would provide him with enough money to build a cabin-like house in the countryside, where nothing would distract him from philosophizing and playing piano for the rest of his life: “There was a difference between the way Adolf bought a lottery ticket and the way other people did.
For other people only hope, or rather, dream of getting the first prize, but Adolf was sure he had won from the moment of buying the ticket and had only forgotten to collect the money” (48). Just as it was the case with Holden, Hitler preferred to live in the ‘alternative reality’; he created inside of his mind. And, the actual realities had very little effect on how he thought of the world and his place in it.
Moreover, it is not only that Holden and Hitler would never allow these realities to have an impact on their ideal of a perfect ‘dream-world’, but they actively strived to impose their vision of how world should have been onto just about anyone they would talk to. This was exactly the reason why they longed for the audience more than for anything else. “All I need’s an audience.
I’m an exhibitionist” says Holden at the beginning of the novel (16). Predictably enough, Holden’s longing for finding himself listeners, closely reminded that of Hitler’s: “He (Hitler) just had to talk and needed somebody who would listen to him. I was often startled when he would make a speech to me, accompanied by vivid gestures, for my benefit alone” (10).
It is being estimated that, during his rise to power and during his stay in German Chancellor’s office, Hitler had held at least a thousand of public speeches. And, it has also been noticed that, after the end of every speech, he would retreat into seclusion for a few days, in order to deal with his mental exhaustion, resulting from a speech. Throughout the course of his career, Hitler continued to insist that all he really wanted to was to be left alone, so that he would find himself at liberty to explore his passion for fine arts and architecture.
And, in The Catcher in the Rye Holden is also being represented as someone, who despite his taste for speaking out in public, thought that being a hermit suited him so much better then being an orator. While referring to the workings of Holden’s psyche, in his article Pattanaik (1998) states: “He (Holden) has vague ideas about his life from the monotony, cliché and ‘phoniness’ of society. But he is certain about shedding his egoistic self one day and regressing into silence” (118).
It is quite impossible to tell whether the knowledge of Hitler’s biography served Salinger as an inspiration for writing his novel – after all, in time of WW2 he fought against Nazis. Nevertheless, we can be certain as to the fact that Salinger was well aware of what accounts for particular individual’s ability to leave a mark in history.
In its turn, this would explain the iconic status of The Catcher in the Rye – apparently, the motifs explored in Salinger’s novel, do correlate with people’s subconscious anxieties to expand their individuality into posterity by the mean attaining a historical significance. In concluding part of this paper, we will expound on this suggestion at length.
Nowadays, the majority of people in Western countries are being taught to believe that their likelihood of attaining happiness should be assessed through the lenses of how they take an advantage of various moneymaking opportunities. The more a particular individual is able to earn money, while applying the least of an effort, the better are the chances for him or her to be regarded as a happy person.
Nevertheless, while being genetically predisposed towards perceiving objective realities in highly idealistic manner, the majority of Westerners do not think of a pathway to happiness as something strictly concerned with their ability to satisfy their physiological urges. At the same time, given these people’s existential secularism, deriving out of their possession of a high IQ, they are not very likely to proceed with trying to attain happiness by the mean of dedicating their lives to some tribal Gods, as many people in Third World countries do.
In its turn, this causes idealistically minded and intellectually advanced Westerners to grow increasingly aware of the fact that, in order for them to be elevated above petty details of physiological existence, which in its turn would enable them to ensure semi-immortality of their individuality; they must become semi-Gods.
The earlier articulated suggestion provides us with the insight onto the true essence of Salinger’s novel popularity with readers, as it subtly promotes an idea that the key to one’s historically defined immortality is his or her existential unconventionality, sublimated in person’s willingness to sacrifice itself for the sake of a higher good.
This is exactly the reason why Christianity became essentially a white men’s religion. Apparently, the biography of Jesus concerned with the process of this semi-historical figure rising from obscurity to the position of ‘son of God’, simply appealed to highly idealistic workings of Western psyche. Even today, only few Westerners bother to seek the proofs of Jesus’ divinity in the Bible – all that makes him a divine figure in their eyes, is the fact that Jesus sacrificed himself to assure the triumph of a justice.
This also explains why nowadays, Hitler is being increasingly perceived as semi-religious, rather than strictly political figure – Hitler’s biography is essentially the retelling of Jesus’ story, adapted to the realities of modern living. According to Waite (1971): “He (Hitler) saw himself as a messiah who was establishing a new religion and leading a great crusade against the cosmic forces of evil…
It is not surprising, therefore, to find Hitler very seriously comparing himself to Jesus” (244). And, given the fact that we have established an undeniable similarity between Holden and Hitler’s existential stances, it comes as no particular surprise that, ever since its publishing in 1951, Salinger’s novel was able to achieve a cult status. Apparently, while reading the story of Holden, people gradually grow to think of this character as the ‘saint of modern times’.
As it was rightly pointed out by Pattanaik, in the article from which we already quoted, the structural subtleties of Holden’s story can even be conceptualized with the framework of a Buddhist religious doctrine: “Sexual abstinence (Brahmacharya) denial of material benefits (aparigraha) and elimination of individual identity (apaurusheya) are the different moral disciplines the seeker has to undertake in the course of his spiritual elevation” (120).
Therefore, even though the way in which Holden acted can be formally attributed to his immaturity, the apparent strangeness of his behavior is best assessed as something divinely rather then psychotically inspired. After all, he never went about gang-raping, looting stores or painting graffiti on the walls of governmental buildings, as many of today’s ‘ethnically unique’ adults do.
It is important to understand that, unlike what it is the case with people in Third World, which can now be referred to as representatives of a fully ‘specialized’ sub-specie, due to their inability to evolve intellectually and to maintain even moderately appropriate standards of living on their own, the history of Western civilization is essentially the history of ‘evolutionary jumps’, instigated by socio-political, cultural and scientific activities of a small number of truly extraordinary individuals.
For example, despite the fact that during their lifetime, such individuals as Galileo, Copernicus, and Einstein have been commonly regarded by contemporaries as ‘weirdos’, they nevertheless succeeded in providing a powerful boost to the course of Western civilization’s cultural and scientific progress.
This is why their names are now firmly embedded in our civilization’s historical matrix. The names of their critics, on the other hand, are now forgotten. Apparently, unlike what it is the case with ordinary people, geniuses can afford acting ‘weird’, because it is not the way of how they act that defines them as individuals, but the innovative ideas they promote to others.
Therefore, just as we have hypothesized in Introduction, the popularity of The Catcher in the Rye can be the least explained by clearly controversial sounding of themes and motifs, contained in the novel, but rather by the fact that, while being exposed to the character of Holden Caulfield, readers get to experience a sensation of ‘intellectual transcendence’, because they subconsciously perceive the ideas, promoted by novel’s main character, as absolutely truthful: sex is not synonymous of love, manliness is not synonymous of a raw physical strength, and intelligence is not synonymous of one’s ability to memorize large amounts of irrelevant information.
This is the actual explanation as to the clearly iconic status of Salinger’s novel – the reading of The Catcher in the Rye reveals a sheer fallaciousness of a variety of conventions, which today’s mass Media endorse as representing an undeniable truth-value.
Kaplan, Robert. The Catcher in the Rye: Notes. Lincoln: Neb John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1965. Print.
Kubizek, August “The Young Hitler I Knew”. 1952. JR’s Rare Books and Commentary. Web.
Pattanaik, Dipti “The Holy Refusal”: A Vedantic Interpretation of J. D. Salinger’s Silence”. MELUS 23.2 (1998): 113-127. Print.
Salinger, Jerome “The Catcher in the Rye”. 1951. Knigka. Web.
Waite, Robert “Adolf Hitler’s Guilt Feelings: A Problem in History and Psychology”. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 1.2 (1971): 229-249. Print.
Whitfield, Stephen “Cherished and Cursed: Toward a Social History of The Catcher in the Rye”. The New England Quarterly 70.4 (1997): 567-600. Print