It’s been close to ten years since I taught high school English, and yet this week I’ve had two occasions to go back to the Reading List and two occasions to mention Robert Burns. Three nights ago, I wrote about Of Mice and Men, thanks to Burns’ Night. Now, just three nights later, I am stopping to say thanks and farewell to J. D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye, a tenth grade literature standard with its own reference to Burns in the discussion of the title line.
Holden: “You know that song, ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’?…”
Phoebe: “It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!… It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”
Phoebe is Holden’s little sister, and an awesome person at that. Their discussion leads to one of Holden’s most honest moments, when he talks about what kind of seed the misunderstood line had planted in his heart:
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 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 have loved the image since the first time I read it, and I think I love it more because its built on a misunderstanding. Here’s this kid in Manhattan who had no idea what a field of rye wheat looked like, much less why anybody would be coming through it, but he gets captured by the verb caught, the verb that wasn’t there, and all of a sudden what compels him most is saving the children from running to the end of their childhood. All he could imagine was catching them before they fell.
It seems fitting, then, that Ray Kinsella kidnapped Salinger in Shoeless Joe, the novel that was the basis for Field of Dreams (Salinger wouldn’t let himself be pictured in the movie, so the author became Terrance Mann). Catcher was the book that shaped Ray into the kind of man who would build it so they would come. He was the catcher in the corn, if you will.
The first class with whom I read the book was a tenth grade class in Winchester. Every class is a bit of a dice roll, when it comes to the group personality that developed, and this one began as a lovely collection of misfits, in a way, and became one of my favorite collections of students of any year I taught. There were Pat and Phil, two friends. Pat was extremely depressed and Phil was a big Labrador of a kid who loved life and cared for his friend. Pat got out of high school because Phil cared for and about him. Brigid was as free as free spirits come (still is, I’m sure) and dove into the book with as much enthusiasm as she had when she led the class in celebrating Rex Manning Day. And celebrate we did. I think all three of them, in one way or another, recognized parts of themselves in Holden. Me, too.
I don’t know what made Salinger become such a recluse, but it does create rather amazing irony that an almost hermit-like author could give birth to such a people magnet of a character. Salinger didn’t really want to meet or catch anyone coming through the rye, or even the door; to Holden, it was all that mattered.
If Howard Zinn worked to speak for the common people and tell their stories, then Salinger stumbled into speaking for American adolescence. I say stumbled, because I imagine that’s how he came upon Holden: he met a young man coming through the rye and decided to tell his story. Burns was the bridge between them.
Tonight, I am grateful for a man willing to listen long enough to hear a mistake underneath the lines of a poem, and to let that mistake give birth to a character that will now out live him for years and years to come, and continue to catch us before we fall over the cliff.
These are hard goodbyes to say to Zinn and Salinger. I never met either one, yet our chance meetings on the page caught me by the heart.
Again, I am caught up short (as on a leash!) by the way you see things, Milton. Sometimes, I wonder how you got inside my head. For example, my 27-year-old son is, and always has been, my Big Dog, like the Labrador you describe in your English class. And he is a kind of renegade character to whom Holden Caulfield spoke in 9th or 10th grade. How I wish he had had a teacher with your gift for seeing the Big Dog as a necessary, even valuable, member of the race. And yesterday, my writer-brother and I lamented the loss of so many writers recently — though we don’t quite think Erich Segal gets a whole vote as “writer” (snobs that we are). Thanks for the info on Ray Kinsella and Salinger. Truly, Salinger was an artist (like Van Gogh? Dali?) whose art was a kind of madness — or a cast-off of his temperament, never intended to move us or not move us. Callous, but really, who cares? We have Holden Caulfield, a regular goddamned prince. Thanks for helping me center my day. It just works for me to read “don’t eat alone,” and then get on with it.
I got reacquainted with my old friend Holden last night and today. Still have the copy I bought in seventh grade. Funny, in the time and place where I first read Catcher in the Rye, nobody would have dared teach the book to high school students. I saw a sad article yesterday, claiming that teens today don’t relate to Holden the way previous generations did (the modern consensus being that he should just “shut up and take his Prozac”). I hope that’s not really true!