Lost Childhood: Fear or Promise or…. on being Holden Caulfield

By J. William DeMarco
At one time… Let’s call it 1985, I took a class at the College of San Mateo where we read poems and comment on the meanings.  One poem, I wish I could remember the name or the author–dealt with lost childhood.  I was all of 19 at the time and never really paid the concept much thought, but I do recall pondering it from then on…what it meant to lose your childhood

Now… a father of three boys–2 are adults (probably beginning to ponder their lost childhood)…. it does bring back those thoughts of my life as a teen.  I am forced to confront my own childhood… have I  really lost my childhood?  I know many that would say… Bill?  No way he is still a kid… some might take that as an insult… not so much for me.  Now I look at our youngest Max just entering those somewhat dark teen years, What do I, as a Dad say?  Don’t loose your childhood?  Is that really good advice? So many questions–and so few answers.

BOOKS and Novels

I have this thing about books… I just like em.  I like to hold them, I like to look at them on the shelf… I know it is a bit strange.  I also like to buy used books… if they are classics.  I recently purchased a 1955 edition of “Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salanger.  Novels are great…especially the classics.  I recall early in my freshman year at Serra high school, having Mr Ralph Stark assign “Catcher” as a must read. I am sure every high school English teacher reflexively puts it on every reading list — but I couldn’t see what all the excitement was about in late 1980.  Sure, I shared the main character’s (Holden Caulfield) contempt for “phonies” as well as his sense of being different and his loneliness, but he seemed just about as phony as those he criticized as well as a whiner and a self-centered jerk.  It was easy enough to identify with his adolescent angst–but, now I look at the work in an entirely different light.  It is about teens, but the novel was originally written for adults.  What could an adult get out of such a book?  Perhaps this is about lost childhood?

Sarcasm and a Defense

It is difficult to remember what it was like to read this book for the first time.  I can remember finding “Catcher” to be funny. I now find Holden Caulfield to be walking a fine line between witty sarcasm and dangerous cynicism (call me a dad). He is funny, but his belittling nature also causes him to dismiss much from his life that may not be perfect, but is good.  There is nothing that he does not dismiss as phony, whether it is the nuns whom he shares a cup of coffee, the teacher at the book’s end who tried to help, the Egyptian wing of the museum, his little sister’s, Pheobe’s school…everything.  As soon as one little detail slips–which is not completely on track with his predisposed thoughts– whatever it is he is contemplating becomes useless, phony, not worth dealing with. His humor is sharp and witty, but it is also an easy way for Holden to detach himself from a world which he no longer feels he belongs in, or wants to belong in. If I dig deep back in the DeMarco brain… I seem to recall feeling the same way at 14-18 years of age… what about Luke? Harley? Max?

We All Need A Catcher in the Rye

The work ends with Holden finding happiness watching Pheobe going forever in circles on a merry-go-round, and being able to pretend that, that is never going to change. She is the one thing in his life which he still deems worthy of existence, and placing her on a merry-go-round is his best attempt to keep her there. Things change and grow and move on, but Holden refuses to accept this and is yearning to stop things forever where they are, to go back to when D.B. (his older brother) was a writer full of dreams and Allie (his deceased brother) was still alive. He mentions once how he used to take field trips to the museum, but now it is not the same and that takes something away from it. Even if the exhibit was the same, YOU would be different, simply by having traveled a bit farther in life, and this is what Holden is incapable of dealing with. The ending is Holden trying to keep the one thing in his life he still truly loves exactly the way she is.

On a slightly deeper level…what does this mean to a father of young adults and a teenager? What does it mean to a man that feels he has grown older…but not really up? 

A few scenes in the book stand out…while analyzing the city raging about him, Holden’s attention is captured by a child walking in the street “singing and humming.” Realizing that the child is singing the familiar refrain, “If a body meet a body, comin’ through the rye,” Holden, himself, says that he feels “not so depressed.”

In an interesting twist, Holden distorts the Robert Burns poem that provides the book’s title. Originally, it read, “If a body meet a body, comin’ through the rye.” (See the poem below) Holden distorts the word “meet” into “catch.” This is certainly not the first time Holden is guilty of distortion; indeed he is a master at it.

Death and Allie

This distortion, really illustrates how Allie’s death has affected Holden and also how much he fears his own fall from innocence–lost childhood, a theme that threads its way throughout the whole of the book…

More sophisticated readers might question the reasons behind Holden’s plight. While I believe, Holden’s feelings are universal, this character does seem to be a rather extreme example–I guess that is why I can relate…perhaps I am an extreme example of so many things.  The catalyst for Holden’s desires is no doubt the death of his younger brother, Allie, a bright and loving boy who died of leukemia at the age of thirteen. Holden still feels the sting of Allie’s death acutely, as well as his own, albeit undeserved, guilt, in being able to do nothing to prevent Allie’s suffering.

The only reminder Holden has of Allie’s shining but all-too-short life, is Allie’s baseball mitt which is covered with poems Allie read while standing in the outfield. In a particularly poignant moment, Holden tells us that this is the glove he would want to use to catch children when they fall from the cliff of innocence.

What I grasp at by book’s end…there are times when we all need a “catcher in the rye.” We are, indeed, blessed if we have one.

The title’s words, however, are more than just a pretty ditty that Holden happens to like…sums up the book’s theme in its title.  And really what so many of us… dare I say so many of us Christians deal with in life.  Do we have a Catcher? I hope we have an obvious one…

When and if I Ever Grow Up

When Holden is questioned by his younger sister, Phoebe, as to what he would like to do when he gets older, Holden replies, “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.” (Me too Holden)

In this short bit of dialogue Holden’s deepest expounds on the book’s theme. Holden wishes to preserve something of childhood innocence that gets hopelessly lost in this phony world of adulthood.

The theme of lost innocence, lost childhood is illustrated again… Holden is appalled when he encounters profanity scrawled on the walls of Phoebe’s school, a school that he envisions protecting and shielding children from the evils of society.

“Somebody’d written ‘XXXX you’ on the wall. It drove me near crazy. I thought Phoebe and the other kids would see it, And how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then some dirty kid would tell them-all cockeyed, naturally what it meant…I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it.” (I can’t help but recall Sundie’s expression and actions when she found the same words written on a slide across from our house in Alabama…sound familiar babe?)

When Holden gives his favorite red hunting cap to Phoebe to wear, he gives it to her as a shield, an emblem of the eternal love and protectiveness he feels for her.

Near the beginning of the book, Holden remembers a girl he once knew, Jane Gallagher, with whom he played checkers. Jane, he remembers, “wouldn’t move any of her kings,” and action Holden realizes to be a metaphor of her naivete. When Holden hears that his sexually experienced high school roommate had a date with Jane, he immediately starts a fight with him, symbolically protecting Jane’s innocence.

The Ever Elusive Point?

So Bill… what in the heck IS your point?

I really need a Catcher in the Rye… or have I already gone over the cliff?   Where is, where was the cliff… can I climb back up?  Is it good to catch the kids?  Or is it bad?  I would hate to really think too long about that last bit, I fear what the answer is from the world.  All of our kids will go over the edge at some point… I imagine the real question is what do we do as parents to prepare them for it?  There are many parents who actually PUSH their kids over the edge–man that time will come, they will go over on their own, I sort of think it is inevitable.

I remember pondering this when the boys were much younger and thinking–Luke:  I will teach and mentor your Bible study group, Harley I will encourage your concepts of Batman and super heros, we all need them.  Max–enjoy your pacifier my son, I wish I had something that could lull me to sleep every night. Go Trick-or-Treating, dream of Santa coming down the chimney–it all goes by so fast.  And guys, don’t ever doubt that I stand right on the edge of that “crazy cliff,”  I am there to help, to catch, to throw the rope down–and I have the answer–I went over the cliff, hit the bottom, found the rope–climbed back up and I am here for you–always.

The Christian point here–we all have a Catcher if we believe.

Subnote:  Okay… I know I am not the first to find Christian references in “Catcher.” J.D. Salinger was, in fact, a very religious man, who studied Zen, Buddhism, Christian Scientist, as well as the teachings of Ramakhrishna and Vivekananda, but this is MY blog…

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