An American Scholar article links Holden Caufield and Mark David Chapman

Posted on 03/02/10

The husband in "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut" is condemned by his wife for bourgeois literary taste.

I reread J.D. Salinger's remarkable short stories when he died. And guess what? They were as exquisitely-written as I remembered. I loved Holden Caulfield from Salinger's classic novel, and I can remember where I was when I read his last published work in 1965 in the New Yorker. In short, I was a fan. But I perceived something nasty and snobbish that flitted right by me when I was an adolescent (perhaps because, like most adolescents, I shared those attributes): Salinger really condemns everything bourgeois. The husband in "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," one of the stories in Nine Stories, is condemned by his wife for some dumb, middle-brow remark he makes about a book. But Salinger sees this hatred of the bourgeois as a kind of innocence: Holden Caulfield doesn't want to see the innocent young children around him grow up and "talk about how many miles their [expletive] cars get to the gallon." Yeah, but if you're paying the bills, you might care about that.

Now, writing in The American Scholar, Daniel Stashower has a brilliant piece on Salinger's innocence fixation, cleverly headlined "On First Looking into Chapman's Holden: Speculations on a Murder." Stashower recalls that at his trial for murdering Beattle John Lennon, Mark David Chapman simply read aloud from Salinger's famous passage that gave the book its title (Chapman was also carrying a copy of Catcher in the Rye at the time of the shooting):

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.

Stashower argues that Chapman either viewed Lennon as a corrupter of youth, or his more likely interpretation, as innocence on the brink of corruption. Stashower notes:

James Paul McCartney, as almost everyone who once cared for the Beatles is aware, became the most successful male pop artist the world has ever known, but in the process he completely alienated his former fans. The man who had written such songs as "Hey Jude," "Let It Be," and "Yesterday" now churned out material that was designed, al­most scientifically, to sell. From a purely commercial standpoint, McCartney was sev­eral times more successful than the Beatles ever were, but he had, like Holden's older brother, clearly sold out in producing obvi­ously commercial music. If Chapman held to the definitions of "phoney" and "nice" as outlined by J. D. Salinger, Paul McCartney had become a phoney....

In the novel, Holden expresses his love for his dead brother, Allie, explaining to his perplexed little sister Phoebe that it's possible to love somebody who's dead. In fact, Stashower makes a good argument that Allie has been preserved from the loss of innocence. That would, if Stashower's theory is right, would make Holden Caulfield and Mark David Chapman allies in the desire to preserve innocence:

Holden Caulfield and Mark Chapman were faced with the same crisis: an assault on innocence. Holden Caulfield could not find a way to preserve innocence forever and was forced to entertain the notion of growing up. If I am correct in my speculation, Chapman found a way. Taking as a model the only character in The Catcher in the Rye who achieved perpetual innocence, Chapman found his course clear. For John Lennon's innocence-which was essential to Chapman's own spiritual well-being-to remain intact, Lennon himself would have to die. Only then could his innocence, like Allie's, be preserved forever.

Stashower's article is just very dazzling. But what really comes through to me is Salinger's misguided view of innocence. Innocence itself becomes sort of decadent because it is not a state of purity but a refusal to grow up. It's nothing more, really, than a refusal to embrace bourgeois values. 




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