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Rye

Speaking Holden Caulfield’s language

Although it’s been 62 years since The Catcher in the Rye was first published, J.D. Salinger’s seminal coming-of-age novel doesn’t look a day over 16.

What’s often remarked about The Catcher in the Rye is how universal experience seeps out of a deeply subjective narrative. The story is told from Holden Caulfield’s point-of-view, and so we tend to internalize his alienation from the action and people around him; there are no other windows through which we can view his world. Salinger plays on readers’ dependence on Holden’s worldview—and unreliable narration—often, and perhaps most subtly through language.

A Mondegreen in the Rye

The book’s title, taken from a major moment of clarity for Holden, is also an instance of misinterpretation. Holden overhears a young boy singing “If a body catch a body coming in the rye” and begins to imagine himself in the catcher role, protecting young innocents from the ills and evils they face. He becomes taken with this image and what it represents for his place in the world. His younger sister Phoebe has to point out when he brings up the song that it’s not in fact a song, but a poem, and it has nothing to do with “catching”. “It’s ‘if a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” she yells at Holden.

The entire ethos he had been building for himself ends up being just one more lie—another case of phoniness—in a world full of them. Disillusionment is an aspect of adolescence that Salinger explores throughout the novel, and here, not even the book title escapes the scrutiny.

Smells like teen spirit

Adolescence captures the shaky, often emotionally tumultuous period that involves coming to terms with who you are and who you want to be—and having a little fun along the way. The language of adolescence is imbued with todayness, sometimes crassness, from cant words to slang typically found in school or university settings.

The Catcher in the Rye showcases the vocabulary of the mid 20th-century teenager through the mouths of Holden and his peers, using colloquialisms such as:

  • backasswards – a euphemistic or humorous alteration of the adverb “ass-backwards,” which, in turn, has been in some form of use in North America since the late 19th century.

You always do everything backasswards… No wonder you’re flunking the hell out of here.

  • vomity –  reminiscent or smelling of vomit.

The cab I had was a real old one that smelled like someone’d just tossed his cookies in it. I always get those vomity kind of cabs if I go anywhere late at night.

  • strictly for the birds – trivial, worthless; appealing only to gullible people.

“Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men.” Strictly for the birds. They don’t do any damn more molding at Pencey than they do at any other school.

and perhaps most appropriately,

  • to grow up – to be sensible, mature.

For Chrissake, grow up.

Voice of a generation

What’s always been fascinating and revolutionary to me about Holden Caulfield, and what makes The Catcher in the Rye essential reading decades in and out, is that his voice is not only of his generation but its familiarity speaks far beyond it, as well.

But what is meant by “voice” here? Two definitions in the OED help provide a context in which the language used by a fictional character can speak volumes in the real world:

  • A person who acts as a representative or mouthpiece of someone or something.
  • A mode of expression or point of view in writing; a particular literary tone or style.

To indulge a bit in a tangent, I’ll point to the first episode of the polarizing, but captivating television series Girls. Lena Dunham’s comic avatar, would-be writer Hannah, utters a set of lines that simultaneously condemns her character in the eyes of her parents (and many critical viewers) and elevates the show to a level of cultural discourse that is frequently, and often begrudgingly, concerned with the plight of the Millennial:

I don’t want to freak you out, but I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.

Inflating her own ego to supreme proportions is a common exercise for solipsistic and narcissistic Hannah, but I can understand her on-second-thought reluctance to declare herself the definitive voice of her peers. Just as writing the “Great American Novel” has become a holy grail of sorts for the established and aspiring literati, alike, shouldering the responsibility of representing one’s entire generation—its motivations, fears, values, accomplishments, etc.—is no small task. It takes a bold individual to ascribe him- or herself a literary and/or cultural spokesperson, and it’s an even bolder (and possibly more foolish) one that would do so for the youth demographic.

Both Lena Dunham and J.D. Salinger use the insecurities of their main characters to speak to something larger about how to engage with the world. However, whereas the young adult Hannah knows what her voice has the potential to represent, the concern for teenage Holden is whether or not his voice, what he is trying to say, is even welcome. Will he ever fit in?

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