As a psychologist who studies memory, I was fascinated to see how the death of J.D. Salinger brought back a distinct and powerful memory for me. I would like to believe it is a memory shared by a vast number of middle-aged readers, who came of age in the 1960s and early 1970s when the popularity of The Catcher in The Rye was at its zenith. It is a slightly embarrassing recollection now, but at the time it was earnest, intoxicating, and defiant, all at once.
I was in 6th grade and had befriended an extraordinarily precocious girl. We had started as rivals for our favorite teacher's attention - our hands shooting up in tandem in response to every question she might pose about the current story or poem of the day. I was getting ready to hate this girl, but our teacher had the sense to bring us together after class and ask us to talk to each other about our favorite books. I cannot recall what my favorites were at the time (probably books about Greek myths, knights of the round table, and bloody battles of the Civil War) but this girl, at 12 years old, was a veritable Virgil for me, leading me in the next six months through a literary rite of passage that changed the way I read and perhaps the very nature of my thinking. She was a tiny kid with an overbite and her hair cut short, and I soon began to see her as the best person to talk to in the world. We read Vonnegut, Kesey, Nathanael West, even Sartre's "No Exit" (there was lot percolating in this bob-haired girl's brain - she went on to Yale and a successful career as an editor and literary agent), but first and foremost, we shared a precious assignation that was the benchmark for all of our other encounters - The Catcher in the Rye.
By no means the most popular duo in our class (as you might imagine), we easily resonated to Holden's condemnation of "phonys" and "hypocrites." We loved his honesty and soaked in his alienation, but ultimately it was something about the act of reading itself, far more cerebral, but also more enduring, that shook us to the core. It seems silly now, how we were swept in by an easy symbolism - the worst elements of Spark Notes and "AP English," but it made such a difference to us at the time. As we talked about the climatic chapter in which Holden shares his fantasy with his younger sister, Phoebe, about being the "catcher in the rye," ("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."), we saw the import of his words and were filled with the heady knowledge that this passage was communicating at an entirely different level - Holden was the catcher - the children he would save were really the innocence and honesty that we all lose when we enter the adult world. His fantasy was a doomed but heroic folly - to keep the children pure and protected from the corruption and deceits of adult society.
Ironically, as the metaphor clicked into place for us, we both had fallen over the edge to another way of thinking - another way of seeing. The world was now double for us - surface and subtext - manifest and latent layers - we were gluttonous for meaning. Reading was no longer just about what happens next, but what goes on beneath. Holden might vainly hold out his arms against the rushing tides of children, but we were already gone - the world would never be so innocent again. With each book that followed, we challenged each other to go deeper into the words - to find the metaphors - the symbols and the underlying themes. We were initiates into a club of secrets, talking after school and on the telephone for hours about our new discoveries. Such a perfect melding of two minds can seldom last, and somewhere after our 6th or 7th book together, it was clear that my best friend had developed romantic inclinations, and when I did not reciprocate (there were areas of innocence that I was still not ready to forsake), we suffered yet another fall from grace.
I have to believe that many other readers of my generation share a similar kind of memory to this one about Salinger's book. Accessible to younger readers, and filled with cynicism and humor about the rather pathetic adult world, it was irresistible for any adolescent with a hint of rebellion. At the same time, there was an adult mind guiding our relationship to Holden and we could feel its questioning presence as it let us see Holden's pretensions and fears. Salinger gave to adolescent readers a character speaking to us in our own voice that we could simultaneously identify with and step back from. We could ache with love for him, even as we somehow knew we were at that very place where we soon leave him behind. Whether Salinger himself could ever let go of Holden is a question that biographers will now be hustling to resolve once and for all, but this reclusive genius's ironic legacy can be found in how many of my generation he pushed forward into the adult world.