1984

If you really want to hear about it, I used to think The Catcher in the Rye was a book for obnoxious teenage boys. In a world where all the most celebrated books are by men, writing it off without even reading it was my own form of feminist revenge. I was doing it for the sisterhood – for everyone who said Jane Austen was just breathless handwritten letters and regency balls, to anyone who looked at me nervously when I said I liked Sylvia Plath. Holden Caulfield would be subject to the Eye Roll Without Full View Of The Facts – because why should I care about a whiney, privileged white guy?

I’m far from the only person to have felt this way about J. D. Salinger’s iconic novel. The internet is full of sassy shutdowns that harangue Holden for being a spoilt, narcissistic, misogynist chump, who fits right into the snowflakey millennial culture of social media. But contrary to popular belief, feminists sometimes put down their pitchforks and earlier this year I decided to put my vehement teenage prejudice to one side.

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When it comes to contemporary fiction, female writers are killing it

It occurred to me recently that, though female writers remain an afterthought in the literary ‘canon’, when it comes to contemporary fiction, they now define it. The urgency to read writers like Sally Rooney, Anna Burns, Lauren Groff, Eimear McBride, Zadie (and Ali) Smith, Nicole Flattery – the list could go on – has left my book pile with a striking gender imbalance. Back in 1997, Chris Kraus wrote in I Love Dick: “No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotion, the telescope’s turned back on her.” In the last few years, it’s felt like that is shifting, that a focus on female interiority in fiction is something we’ve finally started to celebrate on its own terms. As a reader, it has been electric. But I began to yearn to find that same nuance and vulnerability in writing by men, too.

And that’s how I found myself face to face with my nemesis: Holden Caulfield, and all of his David Copperfield kind of crap. The Catcher in the Rye, I have now discovered, is essentially the story of a 16-year-old boy who flunks out of school, and then decides to spend a few days mucking about in New York spending his parents’ money and failing to lose his virginity. Ironically, he’s not much of a catch. And yet, after approaching it with the same cynicism I usually reserve for organic farmers markets and Ed Sheeran albums, I made a shocking discovery. I found myself actually rooting for Holden Caulfield.

In our identity-obsessed times, Holden is deemed to be a highly privileged combination: rich, white, cisgender and male (did you know if you say that into a mirror three times, you summon the ghost of an all-male discussion panel?). But the truth is, he’s actually one of life’s underdogs. He is the modern-day equivalent of the Bake Off contestant who talked a big game but actually couldn’t get their sponge to rise on the day and spent the rest of the episode crying behind the fridge. He’s been kicked out of his posh school – and not for partying too hard, either. His tenure at Pencey Prep seemed to involve doing everyone else’s homework, occasionally getting punched in the face and failing to get off with girls. He hardly seems destined for life as the CEO of a Silicon Valley start-up or a White House special advisor.

Part of his problem – and part of what makes him endearing – is that Holden is the only one who isn’t in on the joke. Which is another reason why I love him. Holden is funny. He is only 16, but he talks like a 60-year-old man who spends all day in Ladbrokes, calling anyone he’s ever met a phony and lamenting all the heavy smoking he reckons he’s done. Far from being a James Dean-like symbol of teenage rebellion, he’s more of a pubescent Victor Meldrew. He is never knowingly relaxed about any situation, his response to a tough term at school being: “I needed a vacation. My nerves were shot. They really were.” He reads books that he’s too young to understand, baffled that an older friend who fought in the war would think A Farewell to Arms worth reading, and reassured by the fact that when it came to Romeo and Juliet’s fate, “at least it was their fault”. I dread to think what he would have made of Gone Girl.

But for all the lols Holden provides, the biggest reason I fell for him was that, actually, he completely broke my haggard feminist heart. From his worry about where the ducks go when the pond freezes over to the panic attack he doesn’t realise he’s having, Holden’s neuroses are all part of his inability to understand how much pain he is in. And he’s in a lot: his younger brother Allie died from leukemia, and he witnessed a bullied schoolmate’s suicide.

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Macho posturing may have turned him into a misanthrope, but small acts of kindness still overwhelm him

“You don’t like anything that’s happening,” observes Phoebe, his younger sister, and whether he’s calling himself a “sex maniac” (at sixteen) or chatting over-enthusiastically to a group of nuns, that appears to be true. Despite being written in 1945, The Catcher in the Rye sensitively confronts a topic that still hasn’t been destigmatised in 2019: male mental health. In a world where men are encouraged to be strong, he has no outlet for his emotional struggles and channels his sadness into self-loathing. One line in particular – “Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad” – almost made me weep. Macho posturing may have turned him into a misanthrope, but small acts of kindness still overwhelm him.  

The Catcher in the Rye is sometimes compared to the The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel. But while people have no problem reading that as a study in poor mental health - on the contrary, the novel’s qualities are often obscured by hysterical autobiographical readings - the conversation around male vulnerability is often absent when people talk about Holden Caulfield, the spoiled, over sensitive young man. It betrays our gendered reaction to literature – the turning back of Kraus’ telescope.

In the past, I’ve been facetious about books by men, because I’ve been too tired or too angry to direct my empathy towards them. While that may be understandable, what finally reading Catcher has made me realise is that it probably isn’t helping me be a better feminist. In fact, it might even mean I’m being a little bit of a phony.

Jessie Thompson is Digital Arts Editor of the Evening Standard.

  • The Catcher in the Rye

  • In honour of the centennial of the birth of J.D. Salinger in 1919, Penguin reissues all four of his books in beautiful commemorative hardback editions - with artwork and text based on the very first Salinger editions published in the 1950s and 1960s.

    The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield...

    One of the greatest American novels of all time, The Catcher in the Rye is a classic coming-of-age story: an elegy to teenage alienation, capturing the deeply human need for connection and the bewildering sense of loss as we leave childhood behind.

    'A perfect novel ... it changed US culture forever' Independent

    'It was a very pure voice he had. There was no one like him' Martin Amis

    'He was the poet of youthful alienation before youth really knew what that was' Sunday Times

    'His work meant a lot to me when I was a young person and his writing still sings now' Dave Eggers

  • Buy the book

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