The Stranger in the Rye

The more I read about J.D. Salinger, the more I realize he was Holden Caulfield. I read The Catcher in the Rye twice in high school: the first time because it absorbed me, the second for senior English. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it book (Mrs. Kuhl hates it) but for me, Holden’s revulsion of phonies was my first encounter with Sartrean inauthenticity, the first time I read an explicit expression of the pressure on children to graduate school and live a cheap, plastic life of work and consumerism and paying taxes so politicians can eat tenderloin and Predator drones can be built. For some, their introduction to existentialism is The Stranger. For me, it was Catcher.

The obits make much of Salinger’s reclusiveness but he was not a hermit; he had friends and family; he was engaged with the world, just a much smaller one than others thought befitting his stature. Reading about Salinger, I don’t see a man “hightailing it for the woods of New Hampshire to lose himself in a mental ward of his own making,” as one hack put it. I see a man unwilling to be compromised, unwilling to explain or defend himself to interviewers — a man defining the parameters of his life. Why is that so odd or frightening?