Discuss similarities between Holden and J. D. Salinger.

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Discuss similarities between Holden and J. D. Salinger.

In the novel, Holden accuses his parents of being phony and of lacking love for others. He criticizes the society that he lives in as being phony by nature because it is a materialistic culture. He also criticizes the emptiness of the “phoniness” that comes from conforming to social values, saying that it is impossible to keep up with other people and please them all. Holden feels as if he were an alien on Earth, one who does not belong in this world because he does not share common interests with most people. As a result, he comes off as odd or even insane to some people around him. However, Holden’

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Author J.D. Salinger appears to have employed his fictional character Holden Caulfield as an avatar or voice for his struggles with fitting into the expectations of mid-century American society, in particular the competitive and status-conscious culture of New York City.

Most readers know Holden from the 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, but Salinger featured and developed the character in previously published stories for The New Yorker and Collier’s. Mentions of Holden appear again in Salinger’s subsequent and tangentially related short stories. Similar themes also appear in his collection Nine Stories. The repeated focus on Holden indicates an author working out thoughts about his own struggles which are then dramatized and expressed through a fictional character. Salinger’s emphasis on dialogue and first-person point of view also underscore his investment in the Holden character.

In both character and author, there is a driving need for protection of self and ideas. Affected by his service in World War II and witnessing of a liberated concentration camp, Salinger was preoccupied with the loss of innocence and privacy. He did not easily let people into his life and displayed ambivalence about how to relate the Holden character to the public. Holden expressed disdain for this brother D.B. writing screenplays and Salinger expressed ambivalence about requests for theater and movie adaptations of The Catcher in the Rye. While an author’s need to protect work is understandable, Salinger’s actions led to lack of communication with the public and his novel being both highly praised and misinterpreted to the point of censorship.

Both character and author express a sense of frustration of what is expected of them and a corresponding inability to connect. Like Holden, Salinger clashed with his parents during his student years about his future profession. At his father’s insistence, Salinger moved to Europe to apprentice in the in meat-importing industry but experience with slaughterhouses led him to turn away from his father’s authority and to become a vegetarian. During the war, Salinger found a mentor in Ernest Hemingway, which further put him on the path to being a writer.

In the novel, Holden wanders through New York City, attempting to connect with people, only to have misunderstandings and to leave them. He dislikes Sally Hayes for being a phony but invites her on a date, only to alienate her. He wants to protect his sister Phoebe’s record but ends up breaking it. Holden also doesn’t connect with the actual premise of the Robert Burns poem “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.” Holden’s interpretation is highly personalized, based on his need to protect innocence, a contrast to the explicit adult themes and imagery in the Burns poem.

Frustrated by his experiences, Holden entertains a Huck Finn-like fantasy to go west and live on his own. Although he does end up west, it’s not as a free adult taking care of himself but rather as a patient at a clinic. Salinger ended up with a reclusive, mysterious life in New Hampshire later detailed in part by his daughter Margaret Salinger in her memoir Dream Catcher and his lover Joyce Maynard in her book At Home in the World.

Further Reading:

Beller, Thomas. J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Boston, 2014.

Further Reading

  • https://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/fasearch/findingAid.cfm?ead…
  • https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43801/comin-thro-t…

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Although Holden is a fictional character and thus different from Salinger in many ways, such as being too young to have served in World War II (as the author did), they share striking similarities. Both come from New York City and a financially well-to-do background. Both attend expensive boarding schools, but are disinterested in doing well academically. Like Holden, Salinger cycled through several schools. However, both are highly intelligent, and have a deep interest in literature and writing. English is the one class Holden has passed in boarding school as his New York odyssey begins. His roommate wants Holden to write a paper for him, because he knows Holden is a good writer. Salinger, of course, became a writer.

Both have what F. Scott Fitzgerald might have called a “heightened sensitivity” to the world around them. They perceive themselves as unable to fit in with the rest of society. As a result, Holden has a breakdown and Salinger ended up a recluse.  

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One similarity between both Salinger and Holden is their preoccupation with young people.  Salinger was an author who found his audience with the young and felt that within young people was a voice of incorruptibility that could appreciate what he was saying.  Holden’s belief of himself as “the catcher in the rye” stems from his embrace of young people being innocent and not “phony.”   Another similarity between both figures is their non- conventional path through schooling.  Both were thrown out of many different learning institutions.  This reflects how both understand “truth” as existing outside of formal structures. Salinger’s emphasis on Buddhism reflects this and Holden finds nothing but insincerity in the establishment.

I tend to think that their greatest parallel lies in how they view society.  Holden is fundamentally unable to conform to what society demands of him and what is asked of him.  He cannot accept the “phonies” and hypocrisy that is so intrinsic to the world around him. In Salinger’s case, a fierce defense of his privacy indicated that he, too, did not find comfort in the conformist notion of society.  Both characters cannot seem to freely interact with the world around them, choosing their own form of retreat.  Isolation is Salinger’s approach, while disdain is Holden’s.

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