Monday, February 01, 2010

Holden as in Holdin' Those Children; Or Listening to NPR during Drive Time

I must not forget that my Ph.D. is in English, the deepest vanilla of all advanced degrees. We don't have a secret handshake but a public handwave: Some famous writer dies it is our responsibility to have an opinion, just as leaves must drop in the fall and birds fly into windshields.

Well, of course, I read Catcher. I can even tell you the year. It was 1962 at Whooping Jesus Bible College, where it wasn't assigned, but I wrote about it anyway for freshman English. Professor Herbert Lee said I made a strong case for the appropriateness of the profanity in the book, and that it changed his attitude. If so, that was a compliment. I guess it was a compliment even if not so.

I did not write in freshman English about the secret pleasure the book gave me, a pleasure of a type I have since read is provided to women living hard lives when they read in the tabloids about the tragedies of the Hollywood stars. These stars are rich and famous, but they suffer just like me, the women are supposed to think. Indeed, they suffer more than I do, and it cheers the women up about their relative status.

That was one of the pleasures I found in Catcher in the Rye. Life in boarding schools and in New York City seemed infinitely alluring. I was pretty sure that any problems Holden had would be temporary, and that even if somehow he were busted down to a relatively ignominious life, even in ignominy his life would be something I could only dream of.

If he slid down the mountain, I was pretty sure he would catch on a branch higher than I would ever be able to climb. I wasn't stupid about the advantages of privilege even though my familiarity with New York society came from Ellery Queen detective stories.

Of course, I admired the book's clumsy conversational tone that came out eloquent because it was so artfully artless. I got that even if I didn't quite understand how to do it. I figured it was the inarticulateness of the rich and powerful, just another one of their codes. So there's the simple truth. I was secretly comforted by the travails of the privileged. I wanted to identify with Holden but couldn't quite. The preppie had problems the peasant could only envy, classy problems (in the Marxist sense) to which I could only aspire.

You find what you need in the good books, even if those needs are shame and envy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Holden was also from, and steeped in, and an expression (even if negative) of the lifestyle and culture of New England and New York, as alien to me in Southern Cal as the outer rings of Saturn. I could as easily have identified with Archduke Ferdinand.