Magazine article The American Conservative

Caught in the Rye

Magazine article The American Conservative

Caught in the Rye

Article excerpt

Here's one anniversary that has not yet piqued the curiosity of the New York Review of Books. It is now 50 years since I first read The Catcher in the Rye and 50 years, too, since I was expelled, more or less, from Ampleforth College in the north of England. The two events are related: if it hadn't been for J.D. Salinger, I might have had a lousy education. I swear to God.

As it is, after leaving school abruptly at 16--the same age as Holden Caulfield when he flunked out of Pencey Prep--I went to a "crammar" straight out of P.G. Wodehouse. I smoked, I drank, I dated--or dreamt of dating--girls from the Lycee Francais, and sat around my parents' apartment wondering where the ducks in Central Park go in winter when the lagoon freezes over. It makes me sag with embarrassment to think about it now. My contemporaries, meanwhile, went on to university and thence into government, law, medicine, industry, and the Church. I eventually joined an evening newspaper in the provinces. After nine months as a junior reporter, I was sacked. Two years later, I was assistant editor of Ice Cream Industry. The editor was a stick-thin alcoholic lesbian called Bunty, who could turn a bit funny after lunch.

Perhaps I could sue Salinger for psychological damage and loss of earnings, but so, no doubt, could hundreds of thousands of other boys of my generation. He was one of the key agents of corruption in the 1950s and '60s, the Jimmy Dean of the typewriter. It's hard to believe it now, but to a certain sort of boy, he was a god.

Girls were more discriminating. An American woman living in London--a child of the '60s--told me the other day that she had found Catcher coarse and unintelligible and Franny and Zooey just "yuck." "When people started talking about Salinger, I just, like, kept my mouth shut," she said. "I am afraid I was more interested in Kafka, Dostoyevksy, Thomas Mann, and George Eliot."

Blimey O'Reilly, I thought. My American friend is pretty hip, but the women who in the '50s and '60s took up arms against Salinger were not. They wore hats and gloves and butterfly-wing spectacles and denounced Catcher as obscene, thus missing the point entirely: there may have been a case for banning it, even for burning it, but the case did not rest on its PG-rated sex scenes or its notional blasphemies. …

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