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Web Letters | The Nation

The Ballad of John and J.D.: On John Lennon and J.D. Salinger

It’s not about “angst”

Charles Taylor’s essay on the connections between J,D, Salinger and John Lennon falls prey from the very beginning to the college freshman premise that The Catcher in the Rye is about teenage rebellion and angst. In this reading, Holden Caulfield’s “contempt” for others is a result of his inability to avoid being a “phony”—that is, he’s hypocritical rather than heroic. Mr. Taylor should know that respected Salinger critics crossed that bridge decades ago.

To say that Catcher is about rebellion is like saying that Moby-Dick is about someone who’s mad at a whale. Of course it is. Holden’s “rebellion” and dislike of virtually everyone he meets is a manifestation of his psychological condition. He’s mad at almost everyone and everything because his younger brother Allie died cruelly and too young from leukemia (two years before the start of the book). Holden is in mourning—or, rather, in a stage before mourning in which melancholy controls one’s actions to the point of inertia. This isn’t rebellion, it’s trauma.

Forgotten in most discussions of the book, including Taylor’s, is how Holden overcomes his inertia through a symbolic death and rebirth, and how he accepts his own mortality by seeing the world as a child and adult simultaneously (that’s what the carousel scene at the end is about). Yes, there’s much in his character that readers will have trouble getting around, including the luxury of being able to flunk out of prep schools every year. But anyone who begins and ends by saying that The Catcher in the Rye is about teenage angst needs to do some serious re-reading. This book goes to the heart of what it means to be human: what to do with life, with death.

Matthew M. Cariello

Bexley, OH

Feb 7 2011 - 11:29pm

The Ballad of John and J.D.: On John Lennon and J.D. Salinger

And the Beatles inspired Charlie Manson

So what? Salinger’s characters are fragile, damaged human beings (Holden, Seymour, Frannie), not role models. Yes, in their solipsism, narcissism and superciliousness they have appealed over the decades to successive generations of alienated adolescents. So did Bob Dylan at his best, as when he sneers that “somethin' is happenin’ here, and you don't know what it is... dooo yoou...Mr. Jones?” But then, come to think of it, Bob Dylan wrote the lyrics that inspired the Weather Underground, which only goes to prove Charles Taylor’s point. Yes, now I see his point and agree—from here on ’s only have sunny, happy, yea-saying protagonists and themes in our novels, short stories and popular music.

Maurice Isserman

Clinton, NY

Feb 6 2011 - 12:15pm

The Ballad of John and J.D.: On John Lennon and J.D. Salinger

Has anyone at The Nation actually read a Salinger book recently?

What a botch of a fantastic topic. Ironically, a meanspirited, closed-minded assassination of Salinger—a series of cheap shots. Not very interesting on Lennon either. Someday, somebody really smart who really gets both of these wonderful, strange artists, and has the time and space to thoroughly depict and grasp Mark David Chapman will do this job right. One wishes Christopher Hitchens were healthier...

Scott Haycock

Atlanta, GA

Feb 4 2011 - 2:08am

The Ballad of John and J.D.: On John Lennon and J.D. Salinger

Hmm...

Mind you, it’s not nice being shot under any circumstances, but being shot by a nut who’s read a book that motivates him to kill you must be an utter pain. I wonder if Lennon ever read Catcher  and ever had anything like the vaguest inkling that he might some day be shot for its sake? I think there’s more than a mild confluence between the book and the Chapman et al. assassination/attempts. But also simply between Lennon and Chapman, the crazed fan. And of course, Lennon was far from being the sainted holy man people like to see in him today. I mean the word “phony” of course fully applies, and I for one don’t think any of Lennon’s post-Beatle material is worth a dang. That last album, Double Fantasy, was basically rubbish. But heck—thousands of other artists have produced rubbish and lived a complete falsehood, the phoniest of lives, without getting killed for it. So think there’s no need to adopt something like a Chapmanesque perspective on Lennon, nor on Salinger.

Salinger was a great writer, and I fail to understand why anyone should view the Catcher as juvenile lit. It may have been immature lit, in the sense that the author didn’t really know what he was doing or saying. I’ve often felt that he was imitating Saroyan’s Human Comedy, a popular book of the times, not least by christening his hero “Holden Caulfield,” vaguely along the lines of Saroyan’s “Homer Macauley.” Either way, it’s a great book, a picaresque novel, and just to prove it, its hero winds up in the loony bin. It’s part of the definition of the genre, he’s a shlemiel. Never mind a bunch of nutty readers. And both Lennon and Salinger belong among the immortals of the twentieth century. So they do belong in some kind of “double fantasy,” in a weird way, though they may never have intended it to be so.

Tom Appleton

Wellington, NEW ZEALAND

Feb 2 2011 - 6:08am

The Ballad of John and J.D.: On John Lennon and J.D. Salinger

Strange article… especially here

This is one of the strangest articles I’ve ever read. It suggests that The Catcher in the Rye presents so alienated and narcissistic a hero (and in such a seductive way!) that it can create assassins. It doubles down—quadruples down—on the contention that “lack of civility” led to Loughner’s murders.

Maybe so, and certainly Lennon’s assassin liked The Catcher in the Rye. But the article comes across as a plea for censorship or an attack on Salinger, and seems out of place in a liberal magazine.

The Catcher in the Rye is written, says its narrator, from a mental institution. Salinger and Caulfield both know something is wrong with them, and what is wrong with them is part of their story. Like Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, Catcher suggests from its first paragraph (“madman stuff”) that the hero is tormented and perhaps deranged. The question both novels ask is, “If such people can exist in our times, what can we do about them?”

Both novels charm young people. I think the main reason is that such characters are seldom treated sympathetically by the culture at large, so the novels look like the reader’s unique chance to find sympathy for his or her own strangeness.

So, yes, they’re dangerous, and a very similar argument about dangerousness could be applied to Nietzsche. Could be and often has been.

So now what do we do? Take these books out of stores and libraries? Go around damning any author who shows the scars of society? Concentrate only on Salinger, and make sure we never mention him except with a sneer? Make it a point to remember that honest writing gets people killed?

A very strange article, indeed, to read in The Nation.

James M. Rawley

Redlands, CA

Jan 28 2011 - 12:35pm