Holden Caulfield Was Right: We Are All Phonies
J. D. Salinger’s (1919–2010) bestselling novel, The Catcher in the Rye, was published on July 16, 1951. Today, it still sells a quarter million copies a year.
Jason Diamond, writing in Jewcy, ranks The Catcher in the Rye fifth in his list of the 50 most essential works of Jewish fiction of the last 100 years. “No list dealing with best fiction of the last century would be complete without Salinger’s ode to teenage angst,” he writes, “and the limited knowledge we have of the late writer tells us that this book was indeed the product of Jewish neurosis.”
Jerome David Salinger was the son of a Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother. His paternal grandfather, Simon Salinger, was a rabbi who emigrated from Lithuania to Louisville, Kentucky, where he served at Congregation Adath Jeshurun. His mother, Marie Jillich, changed her name to Miriam and presented herself as Jewish even to her children. Salinger didn’t know about her Catholic background until after his bar mitzvah. As an adult, notes David Wagner in The Atlantic, Salinger “adopted new religious practices about as often as people buy shoes.”
In the only interview he ever gave, J. D. Salinger said of Holden Caulfield, the sixteen-year-old protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, “My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book.” In the story, which takes place over the course of just three days, Holden gets expelled from his Pennsylvania boarding school and journeys to Manhattan. There he gives adulthood a try, only to end up feeling even more alienated from those around him. Like Holden, Salinger flunked out of prep school and was manager of his high school fencing team. Although the novel does not state that Caulfield is Jewish, Holden says, “My parents are different religions, and all the children in our family are atheists.” Some have taken this to imply that Holden is a secular Jew.
According to Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, Salinger shared Holden’s sense of alienation. Margaret traces it not so much to her father’s temperament as to his experiences of anti-Semitism. Author Gish Jen writes:
She [Margaret] characterizes Salinger as sensitive about his Jewishness, with good cause: a few years before her father’s arrival at the military academy, the picture of a Jewish student who had graduated second in the class was printed on a perforated page in the yearbook, so it could be torn out. We note, too, in Ian Hamilton’s unofficial biography, a letter from the father of a girl to whom Salinger once proposed, describing him as “an odd fellow. He didn’t mingle much with the other guests [at their Daytona Beach hotel]…. He was – well, is he Jewish? I thought that might explain the way he acted…. I thought he had a chip on his shoulder.”
Holden sees everybody’s faults. His favorite word is “phony,” which he uses 35 times in the novel. He is extremely sarcastic, and his diatribes against the “phonies” are scathing. Sometimes he rails against religious people. Here’s his rant about Ossenburger, a boarding school alumnus who had a wing of the dorm named after him for his large donations:
Then, the next morning, in chapel, he made a speech that lasted about ten hours. He started off with about fifty corny jokes, just to show us what a regular guy he was. Very big deal. Then he started telling us how he was never ashamed, when he was in some kind of trouble or something, to get right down on his knees and pray to God. He told us we should always pray to God – talk to Him and all – wherever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me.
Lawyers are also fair game. Holden tells his ten-year-old sister, Phoebe:
I mean they’re all right if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. And besides, even if you did go around saving guys’ lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys’ lives, or because you did it because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court…. How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t.
How would any of us know? In one sense, we are all phonies. Maybe there’s a little of the lawyer in all of us. Life has a way of exposing our insecurities and weaknesses, and most, if not all of us, try to hide them behind a façade. As Henry David Thoreau put it, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”
Holden is an expert at mentally dissecting and stripping away the façades of others. But that leads to his alienation. Toward the end of the book, he imagines himself living far away from the rest of humanity when he is older. He tells us, “I’d have this rule that nobody could do anything phony when they visited me. If anybody tried to do anything phony, they couldn’t stay.”
Holden is just a teenager. But some teenagers have keener insight into human nature than adults, who have, by necessity, become “phony” to survive in this world. Although Holden may use a lot of coarse language to make his points, it’s hard to argue with many of them.
He also wants to be a preserver of youthful innocence, a “catcher in the rye,” as he explains to Phoebe in this passage, when she asks him what he would like to be professionally:
“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like – ”
“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”
“I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”
She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.
“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
Is it really that crazy? Holden would like to save all the children before the world robs them of their innocence. He recognizes that we are all eventually stained by this world. We are polluted not only from without, but we soon discover that we are impure within. We are infected with a disease we inherited from the first to lose their innocence: Adam and Eve.
Holden was right. We are all, to greater or lesser degrees, phonies, and we are all flawed because we all fall short of God’s standards in the Scriptures.
The only thing Holden lacked was the remedy.
God knows our hidden selves – our weaknesses, failures, fears and sins. The Jesus that the “phony” Ossenburger talked about really does want to be our “buddy,” our best friend. The New Testament says of Jesus, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Yeshua (Jesus) was the “kippur” (covering) for our bad actions; through his sacrifice, God can look at us as having been atoned for, acceptable in His sight. Once we acknowledge this with the humility of little children, we are known as Yeshua’s friends.
Like Holden, Jesus loved children and wanted to protect their innocence. He made a much stronger statement than Holden’s: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
Almost everybody in Holden’s circle disappointed him. I wish he had come to know Jesus, a “friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34), “a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24) and the only truly non-phony person who ever lived.
 Jason Diamond, “The 50 Most Essential Jewish Works of Fiction of the Last 100 Years,” Jewcy, February 9, 2011, http://jewcy.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/essential_jewish_fiction.
 David Wagner, “These Are the J. D. Salinger Secrets We’ve Been Waiting For,” The Atlantic, January 29, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/jd-salinger-documentary/318934/.
 Gish Jen, “The Catcher in the Rye,” http://www.newliteraryhistory.com/catcherintherye.html.
 J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, 1979), 131.
 Jen, “The Catcher in the Rye.”
 Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 23.
 Ibid., 223–224.
 Henry David Thoreau, Walden. Originally published in 1854.
 Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 266.
 Ibid., 224–225.