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Almost My Generation: Salinger and Holden Caulfield
“The thing is, it’s real hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs—if yours are really good ones and theirs aren’t. You think if they’re intelligent and all…and have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do. It’s one of the reasons I roomed with a stupid bastard like Stradlater. At least his suitcases were as good as mine.” - Holden Caulfield, from Chapter 14 of “The Catcher In The Rye”
I was amazed when I read that J.D. Salinger passed away last week at the age of 91. I was amazed, really, that he was still alive. Not that 91 is so old—old JD—but that Salinger’s claim to fame, “The Catcher in the Rye,” was published in 1951. 1951! The year of the Bertoia chair and the Eames storage unit. I don’t know if Salinger is a fit subject for a design blog, and I don’t know what Holden Caulfield’s suitcases have to do with anything, but “The Catcher in the Rye” is a product of the same cultural moment as mid-century design, so here goes…
What I know about JD Salinger can fill a very short blog.
- I know that he stopped publishing in 1965 and lived another 45 years.
- I know that as an older man he had an ill-fated affair with a Yale undergrad, and that she subsequently wrote a book about it.
- I know that he shunned the spotlight and eschewed attention, though as reclusive writers go, I prefer Thomas Pynchon.
- I know that “The Catcher In The Rye” is still widely read, however relevant Holden Caulfield remains.
- I know that an entire generation of architects and designers whose work defined the postwar era (from the late 50’s on) likely read “The Catcher In The Rye” during their formative years.
I first read “The Catcher In The Rye” in a High School English class, along with other chestnuts such as “The Old Man and the Sea,” “A Separate Peace,” and “Animal Farm.” I re-read it this week, after a request to blog about Salinger (keep those cards and letters coming…). I expected to be disappointed, but wasn’t. I liked Holden Caulfield’s voice, thought it has held up pretty well, though his shenanigans seem pretty tame by today’s standards. Literary truancy hardly stops the presses anymore.
If I had to say what the book is about, I’d say hypocrisy and women. Salinger appears to be against the first and for the second, for the most part, though it often gets complicated. Holden, for his part, is given to kidding a kidder, spending much of his time shining on classmates, girlfriends, mothers of classmates, cabdrivers, and former professors. The phonier they are, the more he prevaricates. As he says about lying, “Once I get started, I can go on for hours if I feel like it. No kidding. Hours.” This is subversive, sure, but he’s sixteen—he’s got three years to go before he’s even sophomoric. Can you completely trust a guy who says “I’m quite illiterate. But I read a lot.” You can like him, but can you trust him?
I still don’t know if this book spoke directly to architects and designers. Any octeganarians reading this? Holden did toss off two bon mots that seem applicable: "All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to.” That killed me. He also said “If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don’t watch it, you start showing off. And then you’re not as good anymore.” Those are words of wisdom for anyone.