When I was growing up in Manhattan the generational text for the generation immediately before mine was The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. My tastes in high school ran to Thomas Wolfe (of course), Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and Faulkner, etc., and I took it actually as both a point and a badge of honor never to have read Salinger’s novel, which I assumed from hearsay was a left-wing New York screed and founding text of the New Left. Several weeks ago, acting on impulse from certain vague purposes, I ordered a copy. The novel is a short one, and I read it in two afternoons between stints at the keyboard writing a column.
The Catcher in the Rye is actually a very good book, well constructed, skillfully written, carefully thought out, and endowed with a powerful sense of place, time, and social milieu. I found Salinger’s Manhattan of the late 40’s (the book was published in 1951, a year before Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood) immediately recognizable, and his evocation of the Eastern prep school and the social class that patronized and supported it equally so. Moreover, the novel smells not at all of the New Left then gestating in the womb of history but rather reflects the critical view most American novelists, including the Southern ones, had of modern America. A favorite remark by Salinger’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, begins “I hate it when”—an expression habitually in my mouth and my sister’s while we were growing up. In fact, the two of us were responding to the same complaints Holden had against American society in the second half of the 20th century, and in almost exactly the same way.
To be honest, one of my reasons for finally approaching the book was my recollection of a remark made to a girlfriend of mine in the 70’s, by a girlfriend of hers, about me: “He’s like Holden Caulfield written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.” By then I was on my way to becoming a Wyoming cowboy, and so I neither resembled nor resented that description at the time, or now.