For the past fifty-eight years, Holden Caulfield has been “stuck in time and place on the 256 pages J. D. Salinger allotted him in 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye,” Julie Steinberg writes in the Wall Street Journal today. And if Salinger has his way, that’s where Holden Caulfield will remain.
Last month Salinger sued to enjoin the publication of an unauthorized sequel, and just last week the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in his favor, holding that the sequel—60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye by the Swedish publisher Fredrik Colting—does not constitute fair use of Salinger’s original material. “Mr. Salinger is notorious for his protection of his creations,” Steinberg observes. “He has denied movie directors the rights to option Catcher and turned down licensing deals that could have turned Holden Caulfield into a mass-marketing bonanza.” But I wonder if she hasn’t missed the point.
Salinger last published a new piece of fiction more than four decades ago, and it is just possible that Holden Caulfield’s “suspension in literary amber,” as Steinberg calls it, is to blame. For fifty-eight years Salinger has been dominated by his creation. It would be as if Mark Twain had managed to publish only Merry Tales and The £1,000,000 Bank Note and Other New Stories after creating Huck Finn. Instead, Twain turned out A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court five years later, taking the attack upon Sir Walter Scott that he’d begun earlier—you will remember that the wrecked steamboat where Jim sees Pap’s body is called the Walter Scott—in an entirely new direction. Imagine if Salinger had turned his attention to the warning from Mr. Antolini, the “perverty” English teacher who reminds Holden of his cherished older brother D. B. After Holden is kicked out of Pencey, Mr. Antolini warns him that he is “riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall.”
What few readers of The Catcher in the Rye have noticed is that Holden longs for exactly the kind of reclusive life that Salinger himself ended up with:
His four unproductive decades might have been avoided if he had relinquished control over Holden Caulfield—if he had granted a movie director the rights to The Catcher in the Rye and signed the licensing deals that could have turned Holden into a mass-marketing bonanza. Instead, as attested by the court papers accompanying his lawsuit to block publication of a sequel, Salinger remains fixated on his creation, “one of the most recognized characters in American literature” who has taken “his own place in American culture as the prototype of the angst-filled, cynical teen coming into his own.” Indeed, these words are deeply dishonest, because Salinger has refused to permit Holden to find “his own place.” Like an overprotective parent, Salinger has fought desperately to prevent Holden from achieving independence, and the folie à deux has arrested the development of both. Among other things, The Catcher in the Rye is a less interesting novel because it has had no descendants and inheritors, only rivals and apes.