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 THE DUCKS IN CENTRAL PARK, OR,
 WHY YOU CAN'T TEACH THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

The “catcher in the rye” proceeds from a mistake, a mistake that we as readers and we as teachers are prone to make as well. I’m not talking about the novel; I’m referring to Holden’s fantasy vocation of becoming a “catcher,” the fantasy after which the novel takes its name. I can’t help but wonder whether Salinger ever regrets his choice of title…. How many of us, at some time in our reading, have blundered into thinking that “to become a catcher in the rye is the story’s culminating vision”? You recall the passage I’m referring to? - Where in response to his worries about becoming a “phony” Holden says to his sister Phoebe:

You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had my goddam choice? What? Stop swearing. [Phoebe answers]…[Well] 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.

That’s probably the most frequently quoted passage from the novel and, as an image, was immortalized on the cover of Time magazine. But remember how Phoebe points out Holden’s misappropriation of Robert Burns? She makes it clear that it’s about meeting, not catching. Why, then, is it that students and professional readers alike so easily fail to see that the end of The Catcher in the Rye (the novel) is the end of the “catcher in the rye” (the fantasy)? The fact that the fantasy has become virtually the controlling image of the novel is problematic not simply because it eclipses Holden’s most authentic realization at the very end of his story, but also because it can seduce us as teachers into becoming “catchers” in the classroom.

As events unfold on that Advent weekend in New York City, what comes to Holden arrives with the force of an epiphany as he watches Phoebe go around on the carrousel in Central Park. “All the kids,” he observed, “kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off” (emphasis mine). When the carrousel stops old Phoebe comes running over to Holden elated. Holden gives her more money for more tickets, gets an unexpected kiss, and sends her off for another try, successfully resisting the temptation to be the catcher in the rye. The power in this moment - not only for what he has realized but also for what he has resisted - is signaled by his feeling so “damn happy” all of a sudden that he was “damn near bawling.” In letting Phoebe go, he realizes that there is really nothing that he can or should say or do to protect her from the risks of the ride. Holden has overcome his temptation to shape her experience of the carrousel with his own “greater awareness.” He has also discovered, as Rilke said, that one happy smile going “around and around,” with no end in mind, “dazzles and dissipates/ over this blind and breathless game” we call life. If ever there were a religious epiphany! At that moment The Catcher ends and we are left with a brief, but important, postscript in which Holden meets anew, re-members, even the most objectionable encounters of his life.

So what has this to say about the way we approach The Catcher in the Rye with our students? Well, I would think that one thing it implies if it does not outright proclaim is that we must think carefully about our need to control the text, indeed, to “teach” The Catcher in the Rye. That is, if we begin with the assumption that our “greater awareness” of things professional readers seem to delight in - things like plot, structure, character analysis, critical commentary - grants us power over the text (and by extension, then, power over our students) we have unwittingly fallen into a “catcher” role for ourselves however benign our intent.

Our role as teachers often places us in a position to assume that our responsibility is “to get students to see” what Salinger is doing and how he does it - to show them what we believe they can’t see for themselves. Indeed, to catch them before they tumble over a precipice into the danger of allowing a text to become a story in which they themselves are implicated and involved. Our apprehensions may lead us to fear that precisely this kind of personal reading and involvement with The Catcher in the Rye leads to the making of a John Hinckley…to appropriating the story as explanation or justification for one’s own paranoia or delusion. As experienced and seasoned readers familiar with the critical and interpretative literature that has overgrown the text like a field of rye, have we not an obligation to come between students and the precipice of wrong-headed reading? Is not our job to generate analytical and critical distance, to interpret metaphor, elucidate connections, and mediate meaning?

Certainly such assumptions keep CliffsNotes and a number of state mandated “standards of learning” instruments in business. CliffsNotes, in fact, has a new expanded, 2000 edition of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Not only does it offer a chapter-by-chapter summary with commentary and a glossary of terms and idioms, but also it contains an expanded critical section that treats the major themes, symbols, and “The Coming of Age Genre.” And just to be sure students “get it,” there is a review section with Q & A, identification, essay questions, and even creative projects calculated to demonstrate “standards of learning” beyond all reasonable doubt. Just the sort of approach you might assume is tailor-made for a student like Holden…but you’d be wrong.

English was the one subject, you recall, that Holden didn’t fail at Pencey Prep. It’s pretty clear that he likes to read and its unarguably clear that he loves to write - remember Allie’s baseball glove? When it came to the classroom however, he just didn’t “do one damn thing the way you’re supposed to…not one damn thing.” He flunked Vinson’s Oral Expression class because he wouldn’t “unify and simplify.” And contrary to instructions about the need to focus and stay on task, Holden preferred “digression.” “I mean,” says Holden, “lots of time you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most…. I like it when somebody gets excited about something. [But] this teacher…he could drive you crazy sometimes…I mean he’d keep telling you to unify and simplify all the time. Some things you just can’t do that to. I mean you can’t hardly ever simplify and unify something just because somebody wants you to.” And doesn’t he have a point?

We too like it when a student gets excited about something - and especially literature, reading, thinking, writing! But how does that happen? By ingesting CliffsNotes or our notes? Or, by recovering the wide-eyed, palpitating, heart-rending immediacy of the first time - the first time a particular turn of phrase, a familiar voice, or an intimate moment unexpectedly awakened a sense of knowing and, of being known? It was that moment when no one stood between us and those words, words sounding in our soul an unanticipated welcome to our own life! To use the jargon, we could relate.

When asked, as a college student, how he would account for his connection with The Catcher, Chris Parker in “Why the Hell Not Smash All the Windows?” says,

I think the language is a big part of it - absurd exaggeration and complete vagueness. “One of those little English jobs that can do around 200 miles an hour.” “My parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told them….” It’s a way of being casual - the use of “or something,” “and all,” “the thing” in every other sentence. The whole idea about being completely unconcerned about anything - except absurd little things, idiosyncrasies. Like [Holden’s] great interest in the ducks in Central Park, and his complete lack of interest in school. [What’s that all about?!]

In his book J.D. Salinger, James Miller, former editor of College English, says, “what it’s all about” is exactly what CliffsNotes and much of our concern in the classroom is not: “plot irrelevancies.” Miller suggests that the reason synopses and so much critical interpretation are inadequate to The Catcher is that they are inadequate to the experience of the novel. What a skeleton of events or a character analysis reveals, ironically, is how relatively unimportant the events are. They show, by contrast, “how dependent [the book] is on incidental detail…for its most moving and profound meanings. Such detail and such crucially relevant irrelevancies are woven into the book’s very texture.” Just like real life. This kind of detailing creates not only character and atmosphere. It makes Holden authentic and real - even with all of his hypocrisy and his own kind of phoniness. These plot irrelevancies are Holden’s digressions, the play of mind free of mediating constraints that dares to be interested and even excitable.

Let’s take the ducks in Central Park…. In classroom terms you could almost identify them as a unifying theme or metaphor since Holden’s interest in them appears at the very beginning of the story, a couple of times in the middle, and then again near the end. In fact one might argue that it was that walk over to the Park to “see what the hell the ducks were doing, see if they were around or not” that signals the denouement. Following that decision to “see what the hell the ducks were doing,” Holden decides that he’s got to sneak back home and see old Phoebe before heading west. It is only after Phoebe is on the scene that the knots in Holden’s mind and heart begin to loosen. But, of course, the ducks are neither a “major theme” nor a “major symbol” in CliffsNotes because they are not a major theme or a major symbol in the interpretative literature - at least as far as I have read. So Holden’s interest in them, no matter how often that interest surfaces, must indeed qualify as a plot irrelevancy. And it is…until a mind like that of Chris Parker’s, whom I quoted earlier, notices and begins to wander about with Holden free from the rules of engagement. Then the ducks in Central Park, or their absence, get interesting. Here’s how…

One of the things we know about The Catcher in the Rye is that the version we have is not Mr. Salinger’s first. He’d been exploring the themes and characters of the novel in six other stories, the earliest of which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1944. Two of those early stories, one from Collier’s and one from The New Yorker, are substantially incorporated into the novel as we have it. But before The Catcher was published in 1951, Mr. Salinger submitted another 90-page version for publication in 1946. Just before going to press he withdrew it from publication and, obviously, went back to work. In those years between the 1946 version and 1951, Mr. Salinger discovered D.T. Suzuki and R.H. Blyth. Suzuki and Blyth more than anyone else are responsible for the burst of popular interest in Zen in America following the war. Protestations not with standing, Mr. Salinger was studying Zen Buddhism right along with the Beat poets and writers of the post-war era. Knowing that, listen to this Zen mondo that R. H. Blyth translates for us in his 1976 book Games Zen Masters Play. It is interesting to consider in association with the ducks in Central Park:

One day Hyakujo was out taking a walk with his master Baso when a flock of ducks flew overhead. “What are they” Baso asked. “They are wild ducks.” “Where are they flying?” [the master continued.] “They have already flown away, Master.” At that point in the game, Baso suddenly grabbed Hyakujo’s nose and twisted it until, overcome by pain, Hyakujo cried out. “You say they have flown away,” said Baso, “but really they have been here from the very beginning.”

[Blyth comments:] Hyakujo’s statement “they have flown away” is true enough on the ordinary level of common sense. They are no longer here but have gone someplace else. But at the moment of acute pain his normal thinking process was stopped and he saw directly what Baso was pointing to in his statement, “they have been here from the very beginning.” The point of the statement is not a new kind of logic or belief but a new way of seeing…an “open secret” which has been right in front of our eyes from the very beginning.

The ducks, whether physically evident or not, are present to the mind that thinks about them.

Now I have no intention of suggesting that Holden’s query about the ducks in Central Park is anything more than curiosity, but isn’t it an odd kind of thing to ask a New York taxi driver? From the beginning Holden wants to know, “where did the ducks go?” When he blurts his question out in the taxi, the driver’s response is hardly surprising, “What’re ya tryna do, bud? Kid me?” It’s our response as well…you can’t tell me that Holden Caulfield is such an urban dunce that he knows nothing about birds and migration however often he brings it up. But what else are we to conclude? Either he knows or he doesn’t and in any case the “answer” (if you will) is obvious, an “open secret” which has been right in front of his eyes from the very beginning. After dropping Phoebe’s record, breaking it into about fifty pieces and “damn near crying” because it made him feel so terrible, he enters the park, wanders all around the lagoon looking for the ducks, nearly falls in, then finds a bench and sits shivering imagining that he will get pneumonia and die. It’s not his own death that seems so troubling, but “thinking how old Phoebe would feel.” In that moment of acute pain, his normal thinking process stops, his mind clears, and he sees as plainly as ever he will what he must do.

Now I think that one could go on to show how from this moment on Holden awakens to that “open secret” which has been right in front of his eyes from the very beginning. But rather than pursue that academic exercise, I want to shift our attention back to what the ducks in Central Park suggest to us about teaching (or not teaching) The Catcher in the Rye.

Holden’s mind first drifts toward the ducks on page thirteen while he’s telling old Spenser “how most people didn’t appreciate how tough it is being a teacher.” Then comes this bit of trenchant musing to himself: “I’m lucky, though. I mean I could shoot the bull to old Spencer and think about those ducks at the same time. It’s funny. You don’t have to think too hard when you talk to a teacher.” Insulting? Maybe…but I don’t think that’s to the point. His point is that as teachers we’re so programmed and predictable because we spend more energy on producing what passes for measurable achievement than we do cultivating imaginative minds. By “shooting the bull” Holden is “following the program,” saying what he knows old Spenser, teachers, want to hear. Holden has “learned his teacher” so well that he conducts his conversation almost mechanically, leaving his mind free to wander. But in the process he realizes just how “poles apart” he and old Spenser really are, and how empty the conversation can’t help but be. It’s a painful realization, and not only for students like Holden. It is devastating for authors as well, authors who, in Mr. Salinger’s view, are poles apart from their interpreters. His disdain for the intellectual arrogance of the northeastern establishment, Ivy League snobs, and professional readers like English professors and literary critics is well documented. Bruce Bawer reminds us in “Salinger’s Arrested Development,” “Referring to a controversy between Sinclair Lewis and the critic Bernard De Voto over the merits of Lewis’s novel, Arrowsmith, Mr. Salinger [once] observed that De Voto was probably in the right but had ‘no right to be right.’ In a just world [he claimed] novelists like Lewis would be criticized not by ‘small-time’ opinionizers like De Voto but ‘by men of their own size’—that is, by writers of fiction.”

It is such a tempting affliction to know it all! Mr. Salinger himself succumbed to it, and despised himself for it. Shortly before The Catcher was published, he was invited to speak to a short story class at Sarah Lawrence. According to William Maxwell in the 1951 Book of the Month Club News, Salinger said, “I went, and I enjoyed the day, but I wouldn’t want to do it again. I got very oracular and literary. I found myself labeling all the writers I respect. A writer, when he’s asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves.” No need for labeling. No need for interpretation or justification or explanation. But we’re so schooled for doing it! These labels and interpretations, Mr. Salinger seems to be suggesting, too easily eclipse or supplant the writing itself. The writing deserves, indeed, needs to be met directly, immediately - amateurishly.

In Zen one strives for what the masters call “beginner’s mind,” a mind that sees directly into the true nature of oneself and one’s world. Beginner’s mind is a mind uncluttered by years of being taught - being told - what to think and feel, how to think or feel, and even when to think and feel. The games Zen players play are games to uncover our original mind, our beginner’s mind - strategies designed, first, to pare away all of the clutter and opinion that actually filters, shapes, and colors our perception of everything. Overwhelmed by such clutter, overpowered by all we’ve been given to believe, we can scarcely be said to have what Emerson called an “original relationship” with the universe. What makes Holden so compelling is that we can see that he is just as overwhelmed by what he criticizes as Mr. Salinger was at Sarah Lawrence. He is believable because he is just as much a phony as we are, and is sickened by it. We approach life with a beginner’s mind when we remove what comes between us and our experience of the world - or of literature. Beginner’s mind is the mind of Mr. Salinger’s “amateur reader,” to whom he dedicates his last published book, to ”anyone who just reads and runs.”

It might be argued that “reading and running” is something Mr. Salinger knows a bit about. He had as rough a time negotiating high school as did Holden, finally graduating from Valley Forge Military Academy in 1936. He did some time at NYU and Ursinus College, without graduating, before sitting in on a short-story writing class taught by Whit Burnett in 1939 at Columbia. That experience changed his life. Burnett, then editor of Story magazine, recognized young Mr. Salinger’s talent and published his first story in 1940. In 1964, Mr. Salinger was invited to write the Introduction for Story Jubilee: 33 Years of Story. Rather than the expected “Introduction,” what he chose to do was to pen “A Salute to Whit Burnett,” a tribute that didn’t appear until 1975. It is the only piece of non-fiction that Mr. Salinger has published. It’s important because of what we learn about good teaching - at least as far as one student is concerned - but also because it comes as close as anything to seeing the ducks on the pond.

The tribute begins by making it clear that Whit Burnett saw the classroom not as a staging area to display his own personal interests or to use for his own professional advancement, but as an arena to serve the interests of the “Short Story” itself. (Mr. Salinger, by the way, capitalizes “Short Story,” as if to emphasize its integrity as a living form.) In Mr. Salinger’s words, Burnett “conducted a short-story course, never mugwumped over one…. He plainly had no intention of using fiction as a leg up for himself.” In other words, teaching was about meeting rather than catching. Burnett was able to get out of the way and create a moment for meeting - not between himself and his students, but between his students and the story. Here’s what Mr. Salinger says:

In class, one evening, Mr. Burnett felt himself in the mood to read Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun Go Down” out loud, and he went right ahead and did it…most singularly and undescribably….Almost anybody picked at random from a crowded subway car would have given a more dramatic or “better” performance. But that was just the point. Mr. Burnett very deliberately forbore to perform. He abstained from reading beautifully. It was as if he had turned himself into a reading lamp…. By and large, he left you on your own to know how the characters were saying what they were saying. You got your Faulkner straight, without any middlemen between. Not before or since have I heard a reader make such instinctive and wholehearted concessions to a born printed-page writer’s needs and, aye, rights…. Not once…did Burnett come between the author and his beloved silent reader. [He left Faulkner] intact, unfinagled with, suitably content.

Well, this is rich. The relationship “between the author and his beloved silent reader” as Mr. Salinger sees it is very nearly sacred. The author has a “right” to meet his beloved on her own terms, “intact and unfinagled with.” The skilled teacher, then, should be less concerned about having command over the text and more concerned with forbearance and illumination. It’s such a wonderful metaphor! How easily we confuse illumination with interpretation. We assume that to illuminate text means to give our students our own reading. But illumination is always invisible, it reveals without itself being seen.

The irony for us, then, is that what students need to know about The Catcher is already there in the reading - not in the analysis we make, however textually implicit or logically consistent we believe our insights to be. That’s another literature. What students need to know is there in the unmediated magic that transpires between the author and his beloved silent reader. Our job is not to mugwump over The Catcher in the Rye, but to become their “reading lamp,” to illumine a story our students already know and are searching for a way to tell in their own voice. It’s about meeting, not catching - make no mistake about that.

October 2002

From guest contributor Lawrence Bowden

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