Holden Caulfield’s Moments of Grace
The spiritual wisdom of Salinger’s famous teen
Midway through J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, notices a child walking along the streets of New York City. Even though Holden is in a bad way — he’s flunked out of school; he feels isolated from nearly everyone he knows — the child lifts his spirits.
“He was making out like he was walking a very straight line, the way kids do, and the whole time he kept singing and humming. I got up closer so I could hear what he was singing. He was singing that song, ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye.’ He had a pretty little voice, too. He was singing just for the hell of it, you could tell.”
Holden — unlike the drivers of the cars zooming by, the other pedestrians, and even the boy’s parents — notices and appreciates the small singer. “It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more.”
This scene, which is referenced again later in the story, gives Holden a tangible peace. It gives the novel its name. And it gives the readers something, too: a little lesson, subtly conveyed, about what it means to be alive to grace.
That’s why I have no qualms about calling Holden Caulfield — foul-mouthed, irreverent Holden — an extraordinary spiritual guide.
When Salinger died on January 27, I heard the news at the high school where I teach English. I immediately grabbed my copy of Catcher from the shelf near my office desk and, leafing through it, the humor and authenticity of Holden’s voice reminded me why it’s widely considered one of the best books of the 20th century. For the next 15 minutes, my colleague Tim and I paid informal tribute to Salinger by sharing our favorite passages back and forth. Tim could even recite the conversation between Holden and Old Horwitz the cab driver word for word.
A sizable streak of hopefulness
In the days that followed, I found myself thinking back over my own history with the novel. Twenty years ago, I read it for the first time as a sophomore in English class. There has seldom been a book I have loved so intensely and so immediately. Holden resonated with me on a deep emotional level — which, now that I think about it, is rather strange. Holden is routinely described by literary critics as “angry,” “disaffected,” “isolated” — none of which could describe me as a teen. It wasn’t his desperate desire to connect with someone, anyone, which spoke to me. It was something else entirely.
In that same English class, when a fellow student mentioned that the book was depressing, I raised my hand immediately — a scene that I remember vividly, two decades later. “I don’t think it’s depressing at all,” I said, with the vehemence of a teenager platonically in love with a literary character. “There are so many positive things that happen in the story. Like the kid walking along and singing. There are all these great little experiences, little things that make Holden happy.” That make me happy, too, I could have added.
Twenty years later, I still love Catcher for those perfectly-drawn scenes, like the boy singing on the sidewalk, when some act of authentic humanity brings joy to Holden’s angst-filled life. But it was only a few days ago, sitting at my computer and thinking about the novel, that I realized I love this book because it is, in a very profound sense, a book about moments of grace.
It’s hard to find a literary character who is a more acute observer than Holden. He notices the child singing on the busy street. He talks about a boy he once knew at school, a boy who was a terrible bore but who had a talent most others would hardly take time to register: he was a phenomenal whistler. “He could take something very jazzy, like ‘Tin Roof Blues’ and whistle it so nice and easy — right while he was hanging stuff up in the closet — that it could kill you.” When Holden goes to see the Christmas extravaganza at Radio City Music Hall, he can hardly stand to see the actors all singing and carrying crucifixes onstage — “you could tell they could hardly wait to get a cigarette or something.” What he really likes is the drummer in the orchestra pit. “He only gets a chance to bang [the drums] a couple of times during a whole piece, but he never looks bored when he isn’t doing it. Then when he does bang them, he does it so nice and sweet, with this nervous expression on his face.”
Throughout the novel, Holden notices people, actions, gestures that would utterly escape the notice of most of us. In fact, thinking of the novel as a whole, it’s these moments of recognition that give what is sometimes a depressing book (yes, that old classmate was partially right) its sizable streak of hopefulness.
Holden, without knowing it, is onto something. Thinking about the novel now, it strikes me that there is a profound benefit to having a radar that is finely tuned to the small things — noticing an elderly couple walking along holding hands, say, or admiring the cheerful efficiency with which a barista draws your coffee. It sounds hokey until you try it. Then you find out that it’s a skill worth cultivating, because, in the middle of a hectic life, it’s a painless, portable and quite powerful way of seizing happiness.
I find that when I let myself be receptive to the little moments of grace in the course of the daily grind, it can create the sense of peace I used to find in more formal prayer. Even in my crazed life, lived against the background of a toy-strewn living room and the soundtrack of squabbling kids, there are so many positive things to notice. There’s the off-key way my 3-year-old sings to himself in the backseat, singing just because he can — singing just for the hell of it, as Holden would say. Moments like this happen briefly and do not demand my participation. But they have the power to make me very, very happy. Some might call this mindfulness; others would call it gratitude. I think it’s some of both.
Holden, of course, would never use such genteel terminology. He never met a swear word he didn’t like, which is one of the reasons why this book is high on the list of banned novels. At the same time, though, his often crude narrative reveals a deep, unconscious reverence for what is pure and good. Both in style and content, the book shows that nothing is ever so negative, so confusing, so chaotic that there is not something positive there as well. And if I had to explain why this book has never quite relaxed its hold on my imagination, it’s because it is an affirmation that even in the mad murkiness of our lives, we can find moments that bring us joy. In its own inimitable way, the novel is an invitation to keep our eyes open for the grace of real-life kids walking happily along the sidewalks of our world, singing just for the hell of it, singing just because they can.
Originally published March 5, 2010.