Hilary Cosell: To Allie, with love and squalor
01:00 AM EST on Thursday, February 4, 2010
NEW YORK Jan. 28, 2010
July 18, 1946
The first date marks the recent death of author J.D. Salinger. It was front-page news, along with the obligatory assessments of his literary output and opinions about his final resting place in American letters. Most of the conversations centered around his famous novel, “The Catcher in the Rye.” Does it stand the test of time? Is it still “relevant”? Or is it “dated” adolescent angst and alienation, penned by an alienated adult who chose to become a recluse?
I answer those questions with the second date, a date engraved forever on the psyche of Holden Caulfield, “Catcher’s” troubled adolescent narrator: the date that his brother Allie Caulfield died.
“He’s dead now. He got leukemia and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You’d have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was about fifty times as intelligent.”
Salinger devotes less than two pages early in the novel to Allie’s death, and in a brilliant literary move, Allie is rarely mentioned by name after that. Yet he is everywhere in the novel, a misty presence, a motive force underlying Holden’s alienation, depression and misery. When Allie died, Holden slept in the garage at their summer home that night and proceeded to break all the garage windows with his fist. Then he tried but failed to break all the windows in the family station wagon, too. “It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it, and you didn’t know Allie.”
You didn’t know Allie. Is that really true? For it always seemed clear to me that the reader does indeed know Allie, if the reader can be persuaded to look beyond multiple references to sex, pimples, phonies and the disastrous meeting with Sunny the prostitute, to Holden’s shattering loss. A child brother, killed by cancer. A randomly chosen victim, for whom there was no cure and no savior.
“It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it.” To express deep pain in a violent and partly self-destructive act (his hand was mildly but permanently injured) may not be desirable, but nor is it “stupid.” Honesty should compel us to admit that such acts often take place as a last, desperate release of intolerable torment. It has never failed to both surprise and confound me that Allie’s death and Holden’s response to it are rarely, if ever, much explored in critical and classroom studies of the novel.
Near the end of the novel, Holden tells his sister, Phoebe, that if he had his choice he’d want to stand in a field of rye where thousands of little kids are playing. At the edge of the field is a cliff. Holden would be the only “big” person around, standing on the cliff’s edge.
“What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean, if they’re running, and they don’t look where they’re going. I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
In typical Holden fashion, he may have the words wrong — the Robert Burns poem is, “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” But Holden’s wish is not crazy in the least. His catcher in the rye makes utterly perfect sense. He could not save Allie from death. But as the catcher in the rye he can save all those other children at risk. It is a hope for salvation and redemption. Read more deeply, look beyond the universal adolescent angst that Salinger portrays so vividly, and you will find a universal spiritual quest. This writer suggests reading “The Catcher in the Rye” as Holden’s search for God in a godless world.
Salinger’s critics have bemoaned his obsession with children and with innocence. I’m not sure I would describe the clear-eyed, uncompromising Phoebe Caulfield, or the genius Glass children, stars of the “It’s a Wise Child” radio show, as “innocent.” Some critics have also derided Salinger’s increasing interjection of theology into his work, be it the “Jesus Prayer” and Christianity in “Franny and Zooey” or his later exploration of Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and other Eastern theologies in the Seymour writings.
But read “Catcher” carefully and the seeds of those later themes are planted in Holden’s story. Salinger’s evolution into theological themes should not necessarily be a surprise.
As James Joyce, a “theological author” if ever there was one, once said, “In the particular lies the universal.” The sacred is everywhere, if one just looks for it.
Thank you, Mr. Salinger, for giving us not only a glimpse of the sacred, but for your spectacular contribution to American literature and American life.
Hilary Cosell, an occasional contributor, is a Connecticut-based writer and a master’s-degree candidate at General Theological Seminary, in New York.