Real Phonies: Cultures of Authenticity in Post-World War II America

Real Phonies: Cultures of Authenticity in Post-World War II America

Real Phonies: Cultures of Authenticity in Post-World War II America

Real Phonies: Cultures of Authenticity in Post-World War II America

Excerpt

When Holden Caulfield, the adolescent narrator of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), searches for a scathing insult, he inevitably comes up with “phony”: this is how the reader knows that Holden thinks the object of his scorn is ethically reprehensible, rather than just “a nasty guy” like his classmate Robert or “a touchy guy” like his cab driver. In a representative instance, Holden identifies his former headmaster at Elkton Hills as “the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life,” who

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 … then old Haas would just shake hands with them
and give them a phony smile and then he’d go talk, for maybe half an hour,
with somebody else’s parents. (13–14)

Haas does two things here to warrant Holden’s disdain, but only one might be accurately described as phony. First, he dislikes a student’s parents for superficial reasons — because they are “little old funny looking” people — and second, he pretends to like them — “gives them a phony smile” — so as to conform to social standards of behavior. Would he still be a phony if he made explicit his preference for attractive parents? Probably not: in Holden’s taxonomy such behavior would make Haas a jerk, not a phony. Liking or disliking people solely on the basis of appearance may be shallow, but it is not necessarily an ethical failing of the type Holden censors. For Holden, Haas’s judgment is far less offensive than his social camouflage. As Holden views the situation, Haas knows enough about himself to recognize that he dislikes “funny looking” parents and enough about . . .

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