Bryan Caplan  

What to Learn from The Catcher in the Rye

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I recently re-read J.D.Salinger's 1951 classic, The Catcher in the Rye, prompting Tyler to do the same.  My top reactions:

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.



COMMENTS (11 to date)
cassander writes:
Yet the book's deepest and most important lesson is that Holden's thoughts are profoundly shallow and unimportant

This is why no teenager should ever be given catcher in the rye to read. In my experience, teens either get nothing out of it or (as I did) think it's great that holden is running around calling out all the phonies in the world.

John writes:

I've read The Catcher in the Rye a couple times, but I have a bad memory for plots. Overall, I recall thinking Holden deserved sympathy despite his wealth. Which is why I'm inclined to disagree with your assessment of the quoted paragraph.

Holden is saying Haas was "phony" in that he feigned conscientiousness (greeting each parent as they drop off their kid) but especially glad-handed high status, with-it parents, revealing a fundamental unkindness behind the sheen. It wasn't simply that Haas liked some people and disliked others. It was that Haas was ultimately disinterested in anyone who was remotely strange.

Al writes:

Is there a method of referring to someone's personality without implicit and/or explicit reference to environment(s)? Even if you see a personality in a cultural vacuum, that is a personality given the circumstances. So does the assertion "Happiness is about personlity, not circumstances" assume the stability of personality traits under an arbitrary range of environments? Or is the assertion actually a claim on some more fundamental knowledge of the personality, so that the claimant can predict the personality's reactions in different circumstances? It seems like you have to pick some useful starting point to elaborate on marginal effects of personality vs. circumstances.

Tracy W writes:

I first read it a few years ago. I found it fascinating as an insight into a mind very different to my own. Yes, Holden is rather pathetic, and not someone I would like to dine with, and yes, I have never been a rich male teenager living in New York in the 1950s, so perhaps I'm totally fooled and it was nothing like that, but from the point of view of literature giving you insights into others' minds, it was very compelling.

Shane L writes:

In day to day life as an adult I often make quiet compromises by choosing not to challenge aspects of the culture around me, or things people do and say that I find uncomfortable. For the sake of good relations with neighbours I silence my inner protest. Likewise as an adult I recognise my own flaws and failures that undermine my authority in judging others.

As a teenager, though, I was more intolerant and more confident of my beliefs. It's been a long time since I read CITR but maybe Holden's use as a character is his very intolerance, as this helps to show contradictions in society that we as adults are used to tolerating.

On a surreal note, Catcher in the Rye is mentioned in the superb Canadian tv comedy show Trailer Park Boys. One of the characters, called Bubbles, lives in his friend's shed, steals shopping carts for a living and looks after all the stray cats and kittens in the trailer park. Just as Holden imagines himself catching children from rushing off a cliff, hidden in the rye, Bubbles sees himself rescuing cats from doom!

"With me – with me and kitties it's kind of like that book The Catcher in the Rye, did you ever read that one?"

Excellent reference!

RPLong writes:
So does the assertion "Happiness is about personlity, not circumstances" assume the stability of personality traits under an arbitrary range of environments?

I can't speak for Caplan, but based on my reading of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids and its underlying foundation of "evolutionary psychology," he would probably answer this question in the affirmative. He might say that the twin-and-adoption-study data suggests that personality is predominantly genetic, and that identical twins who are separated at birth and raised in different environments ultimately have very similar psychologies.

I cannot say this is true of my anecdotal experience with twins, but Caplan does seem to believe in the data he's considered.

Personally, I think happiness is a choice. It's easy to get caught up your own problems, no matter how shallow or unimportant they are. It's also easy to focus on the things in your life that lift your spirits. My experience is that these things tend to be habits that we adopt, and the sooner we adopt happiness as a habit, the better our lives get.

Jon Murphy writes:

Interesting blog post. I think I'll need to go back and reread this book as well.

GabbyD writes:

bryan, i cant believe you interpreted it as u did. even if i did, lets think about what u wrote:

"Haas is cordial to everyone, but likes some people more than others. What precisely is "phony" about that? "

referring to: "He'd be charming as hell and all. Except if some boy had little old funny-looking parents."

So: you actual believe that its ok to like someone more (or less) for one's appearance?

Isnt this the EXACT OPPOSITE of what we hope to teach our kids? of what we expect for ourselves?

efalken writes:

It's a story, not a philosophy, so it doesn't need to be addressing the most important things, just addressing some important thing in a vivid, novel way. I think it's rather an existential crisis learning that adults don't often say what they mean. This is very confusing to young, thoughtful, neurotic people. Learning how to read people's insincerity is an important, often frustrating, life skill. Read the works of high-level functioning autistic Temple Grandin and note how people without good mind-reading find animals so much more attractive.

My take-away would be to note people are often hypocrites, insincere, and disingenuous, and that's because we have to be. Why do we have to be? Because people have multiple values and goals, and we often have to feign compatibility in order to get what we want out of an interaction, as many would simply not be helpful or agreeable if they found out our true political, religious, or sexual preferences. It's a minefield, but one that needs to be accepted and mastered.

Ray Lopez writes:

I think Tyler Cowen's recent re-read and review of CITR is compelling: TC's theory is that Holden is suffering from impotence, since he cannot consummate any relationship. Many soldiers that receive neck wounds end up impotent, was Salinger one of them? (he never had kids). Another example is the current president of the Philippines, Noynoy Aquino, who has bullets lodged in his neck due to a failed assassination attempt. Another literary reference to impotence is Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises". Ockham's Razor may not apply to fiction, but it's a good starting point.

Chris writes:

Dude, he's a teenager. If it were an adult who was assuming that different people are phonies, I'd say he needs to grow up. But adolescents haven't learned everything you know as a 30 or 40 something.

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