What to Learn from The Catcher in the Rye
By Bryan Caplan
1. Other than losing his brother Allie, Holden has no external problems. He is a rich kid living in the most amazing city in the world. Rather than appreciating his good fortune or trying to make the most of his bountiful opportunities, Holden seeks out fruitless conflict. If you still doubt that happiness fundamentally reflects personality, not circumstances, CITR can teach you something.
2. Nothing on Holden’s Five Factor personality googles. I say he’s high in Opennness, low in Conscientiousness, high in Extroversion, low in Agreeableness, and high in Neuroticism.
3. Although I was a teen-age misanthrope, anti-hero Holden Caulfield is more dysfunctional than I ever was. My dream was for everyone I disliked to leave me alone. Holden, in contrast, habitually seeks out the company of people he dislikes, then quarrels with them when they act as expected.
4. Even if Holden’s enduring antipathy for “phonies” were justified, it’s hard to see why the epithet applies to most of its targets. Consider this passage:
One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was
surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddam
window. For instance, they had this headmaster, Mr. Haas, that was the
phoniest bastard I ever met in my life. Ten times worse than old
Thurmer. On Sundays, for instance, old Haas went around shaking hands
with everybody’s parents when they drove up to school. He’d be charming
as hell and all. Except if some boy had little old funny-looking
parents. You should’ve seen the way he did with my roommate’s parents. I
mean if a boy’s mother was sort of fat or corny-looking or something,
and if somebody’s father was one of those guys that wear those suits
with very big shoulders and corny black-and-white shoes, then old Haas
would just shake hands with them and give them a phony smile and then
he’d go talk, for maybe a half an hour, with somebody else’s parents.
Translation: Haas is cordial to everyone, but likes some people more than others. What precisely is “phony” about that? For Holden, the main symptom of phoniness is that someone appears to like something Holden doesn’t. But he never wonders, “Is it possible that other people sincerely like stuff I don’t?”
5. If phonies are your biggest problem, your problems are none too serious.
6. You might think that only a navel-gazing New York intellectual could write CITR, but Salinger experienced far worse things than phonies. He fought in the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. He entered a liberated concentration camp in April, 1945. Yet strangely, the moral of CITR isn’t that Holden’s self-pity is shameful.
7. I doubt Salinger was being Straussian. Like most of CITR‘s fans, he thought Holden has important things to teach us. Yet the book’s deepest and most important lesson is that Holden’s thoughts are profoundly shallow and unimportant. The Holdens of the world should stop talking and start listening, for they have little to teach and much to learn.