That today's generation is living with real demons—not trivial ones like Holden Caulfield's—is as true as that the generation before him (“the greatest generation” etc. etc.) also had real crises. Holden was not supposed to have any problems as a pampered rich kid who lived in Manhattan and summered in Maine. He's the first in his family that didn't have to deal with the war (though an older brother did).
But I think there's a different kind of burden for those who are not called to deal with a crisis and of whom nothing much is asked. I see this novel as in part a dealing-with-peace-and-prosperity novel. A expose of the 50ies in a way.
I’m curious about what Holden Caulfield has to say to today’s young people. I suspect that while there are some universals, his situation may not resound. But I don't see that the novel's audience should be seen as in any way limited to young people. The day-in-the-life-of-a-16-year-old style was not chosen to attract 16 year-olds so much as to warn everyone else. Holden first saw light, after all, in The New Yorker
, not in The American Girl
(or rather, in whatever the equivalent mag was for boys).
Clearly, there’s a similarity between Salinger and Jack Kerouac, for instance; both see hypocrisy in the post-war world, but deal with it differently. Kerouac's message is the one that really appeals to the young; Salinger's is more “about” the young, with the message—one of warning as I see it—for the whole culture.
Sixteen-year-old Holden seems to be getting relatively little guidance from anyone. That his history teacher tries suggests that he sees Holden as a lost soul. We get practically no picture of the parents—except their disapproval and disappointment when Holden gets kicked out of one school after another. Holden's siblings are his mainstay and one of them has died and another moved to Hollywood (an outpost of “phoniness” according to Holden). We get the sense that the parents didn't do much to help him with either the death of Allie and D.B.’s absence. Nor were they able to help—even to find out about—what troubled him at school.
Holden struggles with sex in a repressive society which has gotten across its message about sex being dirty and shameful, but still everyone his age talks about it constantly and strives to get experience and sexual suggestions and innuendos permeate the adult world Holden samples when he leaves school and goes back to NY alone. And what Holden knows about women he seems to have learned from his little sister!
He senses the hypocrisy that so permeates the society, but doesn't know what to do about it—especially since no one else seems to recognize it. It literally incapacitates him and keeps him from taking anything seriously. When his roommate has a date, he borrows Holden's jacket (which he stretches out) and plans to make it in the coach's car with a girl Holden cares about, and
he asks Holden to write a descriptive essay for him. Holden doesn't want to lend the jacket (but does) and wants to scream that Jane is too good to be treated as Stradlater intends (but doesn't), but he wants to write the essay, probably because, though he doesn't realize it, writing actually helps him sort out his confused feelings. (Remember the only subject he passed was English.) Stradlater, however, cautions him not to make it “too good”. He just wants to get by and not be singled out. Holden abandons writing about a house or a room as Stradlater suggests and writes about his dead younger brother's baseball glove which had poetry written on the fingers—Allie read it to keep himself amused when the game was slow for him. One senses that this is the only way Holden can talk about his brother's death—or perhaps, given the requirements of the novel’s point of view, the only way Salinger can have Holden introduce the subject honestly. But when Stradlater comes back and is disappointed that the essay is about a "goddam baseball glove", Holden's fragile ego collapses again—without the closure he might have got from talking about the essay. He tears into into tiny pieces and trashes it.
The hypocrisy (what Holden calls phoniness) message is, I think, what probably does (or at least can) come across to young people (at least that's what I identified with reading it at 19 or 20 when I was convinced that the establishment was seriously off balance in its values). But Holden has no answers. He's immobilized by the phoniness he sees because he sees it everywhere, even in the people he likes, even in himself. And he's cut himself off from anyone who could help him find a way through the maze. The last refuge, Mr. Antolini, who used to teach at one of his schools, ends up at least seeming to want to seduce him.
How powerful the phoniness message is to today's young people is hard for me to judge. It was powerful to my generation. I've always recoiled from retrospective yearning for the 50ies--that's my legacy from my own questioning of the establishment. The 50ies was a time for getting and spending and forgetting that bad things happened to good people. Ultimately, though, questioning the ethos of the 50ies was worthwhile, for me personally, and for the country as a whole, though when I look around me today I wonder if anything really stuck. I see so many—including educated and prosperous friends and neighbors—with no sense of irony about themselves and their lives at all. That may not be as immobilizing as Holden's total immersion in irony, but I don't find it completely healthy either. There’s a great deal of value in Holden’s nose for phoniness.
We learn at the end that Holden’s writing from some kind of psychiatric hospital where he’s been sent to sort himself out. He’s fairly cynical about that, but what’s hopeful is that he’s using what he does well—write—to deal with his problems. We saw that possibility in the essay about the baseball glove….
POSTSCRIPT: “I like it when someone digresses; it’s more interesting and all,” Holden says to Mr. Antolini, whom he respects because he was the one who dealt with the dead body of the boy who jumped out of a dorm window to escape his tormentors at one of Holden’s many schools. Holden was explaining why he failed an oral expression class. They had to give extemporaneous speeches and the class was supposed to yell “Digression!” when they strayed from the topic. I like digressions too.