Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Kvetcher in the Rye

Catcher in the RyeI began writing an obituary of J. D. Salinger, but given his reclusiveness and academia’s already exhaustive shelves of critical essaying, it morphed into a personal reflection on how Catcher in the Rye affected me and my 60’s world. But Greg Palast did it better (and faster), so I reprint his February 1, 2010, reflection below.

In the sixth grade, the Boys’ Vice-Principal threatened to suspend me from school unless I stopped carrying around The Catcher in the Rye I think because it had the word “fuck” in it. Since the Boys’ Vice-Principal hadn’t read the book – and I don’t think he’d ever read any book – he couldn’t tell me why.

But Mrs. Gordon was cool. She let me keep the book at my desk and read it at recess as long as I kept a brown wrapper over the cover.

I think J.D. Salinger would have liked Mrs. Gordon. She wanted to save me from the world’s vice-principals, the guys who wanted to train you in obedience to idiots and introduce you the adult world of fear and punishment. Mrs. Gordon wanted to protect the need of a child to run free.

That’s, of course, how the word fuck got into Salinger’s book. For the 5% of you who haven’t read it, the main character of the book, Holden Caulfield, tries to erase the f-word off the wall of a New York City school. He doesn’t want little kids like his sister Phoebe to see it, that somehow it would trigger an irreversible loss of her childhood innocence:

I thought Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them—all cockeyed, naturally—what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days.

Which is where the title came from. Salinger’s Caulfield, pushed to the edge of his own youth and directed to prepare himself for the job market, could see for himself only one career: as a catcher in the rye. He imagined a bunch of kids playing away happily in a rye field, but a field on a cliff’s-edge. Every time a child, lost in their game, would drift toward the edge, Caulfield’s job would be to catch them before they fell.

Any other job would just turn you into a “phony,” that is, an adult. All adults were phonies, even the nice ones, who took jobs they hated, taught textbooks and catechisms they didn’t believe and lived lives of self-inflicted disappointments, while pretending it was all OK. Then with phony grins, they’d demand that you join their painful parade of delusion and decay.

Nearly half a century after I covered up Salinger’s book in a carefully folded brown wrapper, I thought I’d read it to my twins. They were now eleven, in the 6th grade.

But I couldn’t. In his 1956 book, Salinger had railed against a post-war world of boys in school blazers trying to get to “first base” with their steady dates. America itself was an adolescent, and despite the police beatings of marchers in Alabama, despite the “drop, tuck and don’t look at the flash!” drills we did weekly in Mrs. Gordon’s class to prepare for the Russian nuclear attack, America was still weirdly, optimistically child-like.

We knew then that the world could only get better: we would go to the moon and eventually, vacation there. JFK announced the Alliance for Progress and poverty would end in Appalachia; and Paul McCartney wanted to hold our hand. Every nasty meanie, like the police in Selma, was met by a legion of victorious innocents led by Martin Luther King. So we all held hands in a circle while Pete Seeger strummed “We shall overcome.” Everyone would get a scholarship; and we really, truly believed we would overcome.

Even the social critics – Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac – were just big, mischievous kids.

Yes, there were a bunch of old phonies like Joe McCarthy and the Boys’ Vice-Principal, but their days were numbered.

Then we fell over the cliff.

A bullet through the skull replaced Kennedy with Nixon. We shall overcome was replaced with the vicious “Southern Strategy;” the Cold War exploded in hot jungles; then came the idiot wasteland of the regimes of Ford and Carter and Reagan and Clinton and Bushes, a degenerative march as the machine of America rusted and died.

And here we are today, begging for spare parts from China and my daughter glued to YouTube videos of Lady Ga-Ga’s crotch, and my son slicing off a cop’s head in Grand Theft Auto and a President, telegenic and painfully hollow, playing the lost and ineffectual shepherd over an electorate divided between the terrified and the greedy. In place of prophets, we are offered a caravan of kvetching clowns piling out of the Volkswagen on MSNBC.

Jerome David Salinger 1919-2010
Jerome David Salinger 1919-2010
There’s no way to wipe the fuck off this smeared planet. I’m supposed to try. I’m an investigative reporter, meaning I have a professional commitment to the childish belief that if I shout loud enough, I can warn people away from the cliff’s edge.

Well, it’s better than a real job, but no less “phony,” no less of a petty illusion.

I’m holding this book, the brown wrapper lost who the hell knows when, and I know it would just be laughable, inscrutably ancient to those wisened, worldly children of mine.

I’ve put it back on my shelf.

You stand on the cliff edge and there’s no one left to catch.

I have read that sages in every era have mourned their time’s descent from past intentions and glories. Perhaps all these sages (including Palast and, immodestly, me) are fuddy-duddies.

Perhaps, in the present instance, not.

8 Comments

  1. Ladd Biggerstaff says:

    Perhaps you are a phony. Perhaps I am, too.

  2. Gene Carey says:

    Steve,
    This topic reminds me, in our 11th grade English class, Mr. Murray asked all of us to select a novel to study. I remember Novita Callen recommended The Ninth Wave and Dave Rollison insisted we should read On the Road. There were probably other nominations that I’ve forgotten. What was the final decision? The Catcher in the Rye should have been the clear choice, but maybe everyone else had read it by then.

    • Steve Cotler says:

      The Ninth Wave by Eugene Burdick…a decidedly subpar novel. I wish we’d taken Rollison’s advice.

      • David Rollison says:

        If everyone took Rollison’s advice, what a wonderful world it would be…Wonderful to hear from Steve as always but also wonderful to hear from Eugene Carey. Now I can confess that I rewrote the ear story and turned it in to Kay Boyle who had me read it to the class. It’s not exactly plagiarizing since I had no access to the original except in my memory. It was a big hit at Sf State in 1963 (I–innumerate–think). Kay Boyle was the prof and Gordon Lish was one of the students.

        Hi Gene–back from the Alaskan Islands?

        • Steve Cotler says:

          “The ear story”?

          • David Rollison says:

            If memory serves me and I think it does, the chosen book was The Ninth Wave. Novita’s wishes far outweighed mine in the general consensus in those days. It was a stupid book. But Mr Murray took me and a few others to his alma mater, Loyola University in L.A. to hear a lecture on Catcher. it was very cool. The professor had a student, dressed in a raincoat and hunting cap read passages from the novel that he was explicating. It was the first college campus I ever set foot on and I remember it was on a hill above the sparkling lights of Los Angeles.

            The ear story was a Conrad-like or Kipling-like tale, written by Gene, that involved a white bounty hunter in some unnamed African state seeking a black criminal. After a lot of cat and mouse, the hunter tracks the criminal to a jungle encampment and is able to take him out by aiming between his ears which are glowing from the campfire he sits before. The hunter is the narrator and he wears a shriveled ear on a lanyard around his neck.

            It was a fecking brilliant story.

        • Gene Carey says:

          Dave,

          Very good to hear from you! I never read The Ninth Wave, even as a class assignment, but I did read On the Road (and many times since then), so I, for one, took your advice and am better for it.

          You are too generous in your memory of the story I wrote. I now remember that I was too shy to have that story read aloud in our class, but Mr. Murray allowed you to read it privately, and several years later you admitted you’d rewritten it for a class at SF State. I was flattered that you thought it worth reworking, and any “brilliance” must have been your contribution.

          I recently ran across my original story in some files my mother sent me, and your memory of the plot is very accurate. I was under the influence of both Conrad and Kipling at that time, but the primary inspiration was a book I’d read about a man who hunted jaguars in the jungles of Brazil. That seemed like my dream job at that age.

          All the best,

          Gene

    • Novita Donovan says:

      I don’t remember any of this in Mr.Murray’s English class so you guys are either brighter than I or have a better memory.Speaking of Mr. Murray, he was my daughter Kelley’s guidance counselor when she attended Camarillo High School and I went into his office so I could say hi and I was so amazed because he was now this swinging(old word), mod,cool,man; nothing like he was in high school. I could hardly believe that he was the same man. He did tell my daughter about some paper I wrote and had forgotten about. It was great to see him.

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