Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Comin thro the rye

Comin thro' the rye, poor body, 
Comin thro' the rye, 
She draigl't a' her petticoatie 
Comin thro' the rye. 

Oh Jenny's a' weet, poor body, 
Jenny's seldom dry, 
She draigl't a' her petticoatie 
Comin thro' the rye. 

Gin a body meet a body 
Comin thro' the rye, 
Gin a body kiss a body
Need a body cry. 

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the glen; 
Gin a body kiss a body 
Need the warld ken! 

Oh Jenny's a' weet, poor body, 
Jenny's seldom dry, 
She draigl't a' her petticoatie 
Comin thro' the rye.

  In 1796, Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote a cheery little ditty about how tough it was for Scottish lovers to woo.  The church elders in the eighteenth-century felt it was their God-given duty to scrutinize courting rituals, so a poor girl like Jenny, dragging her wet and muddy petticoats through a field of rye, would invite community condemnation.

  In 1951, American author J.D. Salinger wrote a dreary novel about a 16-year-old prep school failure who is on the verge of, at the very least, a nervous breakdown.  Holden Caulfield, “the original sullen teenager,” “a symbol of purity and sensitivity,” and “a James Dean movie in print,” trudges through the pages, red hunting cap atop his head, crying, criticizing, fighting, dancing and always running away from the phonies who run the world.

  After running across a child singing Burns’ song crossing a street, Holden’s perpetual gloominess momentarily lifts.  He confesses that if he could create his own job, it would be that of the catcher in the rye.

“Anyway, 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 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.”

Catcher cover

   I’ve re-read The Catcher in the Rye twice in the past five years or so, and just finished re-reading it again.  This time it struck me how evidently self-destructive, depressed and mentally unstable Holden is.  I kept wondering when an adult was going to notice that this kid, with the recently-deceased brother, was about to fall off the deep end.  Phoebe, Holden’s adored younger sister, we sense as readers, has always known something is wrong.  “You don’t like anything that’s happening,” she tells Holden, which causes him to be more depressed.  Phoebe, incidentally, is my favorite character in the book.  I was concerned about Holden, but didn’t really like him.  Perhaps it’s a protective mechanism that Salinger intends us to understand, but his narcissistic tendencies to decry everyone on the outside as a “phony,” or a “moron” or a “show-off” or “conceited” or a “bastard” did not endear him to me.

    When someone finally does notice Holden’s perilous state, it’s his favorite teacher Mr. Antolini who predicts that Holden is heading for “a terrible, terrible fall.”

This fall I think you’re riding for–it’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind.  The man falling isn’t permitted to hear or feel himself hit bottom.  He just keeps falling and falling.  The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with.  Or they thought their environment couldn’t supply them with.  So they gave up looking.  They gave up looking before they ever even really got started.

   Now, who does that remind me of?  mad-men-falling-e1330189976453

   I was so struck by the similarity I googled Don Draper and Holden Caulfield and guess what I found out?  Matthew Weiner, Mad Men’s creator told the New York Times that the “FICTIONAL CHARACTER HE MOST IDENTIFIES WITH: Peggy Olson from the show. You know what . . . that’s not true. I’d say Holden Caulfield.”

And more!

Matthew Weiner, the 44-year-old creator of Mad Men, describes the root of his fascination with the post-WWII/pre-Beatles New York City that he never experienced firsthand:

Catcher in the Rye has got to be at the bottom of the entire show. It’s the first book I ever completed reading. I read it many times. I fantasized about living in New York. I loved the WASP-iness of it even though it’s got these Jewish undertones to it.

  He and Don Draper definitely share a life philosophy:  “Don’t ever tell anybody anything.  If you do, you start missing everybody.”

OK, so maybe I like Holden a little more than I realized.

MENU for Book Club

Scotch & Soda is Holden’s favorite drink and his second favorite, which he has to order most of the time because he is not of age, seems to be coca-cola.  I’m not a fan of Scotch but if you want to be genuine, serve Scotch & Soda.  I’ll be opting for wine.

  Holden doesn’t appear to eat much and in the final pages of the book there’s an explanation for it:  “I went to this very cheap-looking restaurant and had doughnuts and coffee. Only, I didn’t eat the doughnuts. I couldn’t swallow them too well. The thing is, if you get very depressed about something, it’s hard as hell to swallow.”  He’s too depressed to eat.  Odds are that your book club won’t be, however, so you could duplicate the menu from Pencey’s Saturday night dinners.  Steak, Mashed Potatoes and Brown Betty.

One of my favorite steak recipes comes from Mark Bittman.

  • 1. Heat the oven to 500 degrees (550 if possible), and set a rack in the lowest position, unless skillet can be placed directly on oven floor. Place a cast-iron skillet large enough to hold the steaks without crowding over high heat, and heat until smoking. Sprinkle surface of pan with coarse salt, and put the steaks in. Smoke will billow up; immediately transfer skillet to oven.
  • 2. Roast steaks, turning once, about 4 minutes a side for medium rare, or until browned and cooked to preferred doneness. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and let rest 3 to 5 minutes. Slice steaks or cut each into two pieces, and serve.

Serve with mashed potatoes.

Brown Betty:  I didn’t know what “Brown Betty” was.  We call it an apple crisp.  So here’s my version.  Serve with Breyer’s vanilla ice cream and a bit of caramel sauce.

4 cups thinly sliced apples
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sug
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 pinch salt
1/2 cup butter
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Lightly grease a 9 inch pie plate.
Mound sliced apples in the pie plate. Sprinkle with juice.
In a medium bowl, mix the flour, oatmeal, sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Cut in butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Scatter over the apples.
Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes. Serve warm.



Holden is out on the town in NYC in 1950ish.  He is jitterbugging to big band swing music at the Lavender Room.  At Ernie’s Nightclub in the Village, Ernie is playing the piano.

I’d suggest downloading an Art Tatum album from iTunes.  The Complete Jazz Chronicle Solo Sessions includes his version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” the song playing at the carousel when Holden comes to some level of peace about going home with Phoebe.

MOVIE:  Catcher in the Rye has never been adapted to film version because Salinger claimed it was “unfilmable.”  John Cusack (my dream Holden) is quoted as saying his only regret in turning 21 was that he was too old to play Holden.  I’m not up enough to be able to cast most of the teens, but I do have a recommendation for Holden and some of the adults.

Holden’s dad:  Jon Hamm

Holden’s mom:  Cate Blanchett

Mr. Antolini:  Peter Saarsgard

Old Sally:  Kiernan Shipka

Holden:  Freddie Highmore

carousel horse

One thought on “Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

  1. Pingback: School Classics | daeandwrite

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