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Remembering Salinger and Holden Caulfield

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When it was announced in early February that unpublished works by the reclusive author J.D. Salinger are slowly making their way into print, the legion of Salinger fans were atwitter.

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Salinger, who died in 2010, published only four books during his lifetime. The most famous is the enigmatic “The Catcher in the Rye,” a book dedicated to his mother and one that still has its meaning widely debated.

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After his death, rumors began circulating that Salinger had never quit writing after his four books. Rather, he had squirreled his manuscripts away in a vault.

The announcement had me thinking back to when I first read “The Catcher in the Rye” as a junior in high school in 1964 and the influence, if any, the book had on me.

Some background is needed on why we were even allowed to read the book as a class assignment. I attended a Catholic school taught by Dominican nuns. What in heaven’s name was Sister Ann Elizabeth doing letting us read this book?

After all, there were numerous scenes, language and situations that were confession worthy. There was sex, foul language, numerous mentions of suicide and general misbegotten behavior by the tragic hero, Holden Caulfield.

The single phrase “fuck you” should have been enough to disqualify it, along with the suggestive cover of the Signet 50-cent paperback that had Holden, wearing his red hunting cap cocked to the rear, walking on a city street. In one corner of the cover a woman is lighting a cigarette and the background shows a tawdry ad for a strip club.

This book was my first introduction to New York City, and I longed to go there, which I have done numerous times. Sister Ann Elizabeth even had us follow Caulfield’s ramblings on a New York City map.

I decided I would reread the book while looking in the rearview mirror of more than 50 years. Every detail in the book came roaring back, but I totally had forgotten about the role two nuns played in the book and in Holden’s psyche.

While having breakfast, Caulfield meets up with the nuns at the Grand Central Station’s coffee bar. It’s a relatively short scene, but since one of the nuns is carrying what he believes is a donation basket, he gives her $10, exactly the same amount of money he paid for a prostitute the night before.

Cliff Notes, which saw symbolism in everything, would probably call the gift a penance for the prostitute.

While eating, Holden converses with the nuns about literature, especially “Romeo and Juliet,” which he thinks is too “sexy” to go into detail with them. Later in the book, he references the short meeting twice.

In passing and then a second time when his 10-year-old sister, Phoebe, asks him to name one thing that he likes a lot. He thinks about it and only thing that comes to mind are the nuns and a former classmate.

I’ve come to believe our liberal nun (she once let us have a class session on sexual references in pop song lyrics) was somewhat enamored by seeing someone like herself portrayed in a popular novel. I was not bold enough at the time to ask her about it.

As a way to celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of Salinger, a four-book boxed set of “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Nine Stories,” “Franny and Zooey,” the novellas “Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction” is being published.

In addition, Salinger’s estate is allowing his work to be published this year with updated covers. I hope they keep his iconic hunter’s cap (looking much like a Stormy Kromer) on the cover of “Catcher.”

However, it will be hard to beat a paperback with this trigger warning on the cover: “This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh and may break your heart — but you will never forget it.”

One other observation I made while rereading the book was Salinger’s dismissiveness of women and objectification of them — the short skating skirt on Sally comes to mind — so I thought I would ask Susan Whitall, a Detroit author and former writer for The Detroit News and editor of Creem magazine what her opinion was.

“I can’t remember if I read the book when I was 13 or 14 and whether it was on purpose or for school,” she said. “Holden was a tough character to warm up to, but the writing was thrilling and there was a liveliness of the prose. As to girls in the book, they were accessories to the facts and he had no emotional connection with them,” Whitall said.

“At my age, now, I would have been even angrier for his depiction of women,” she said.

But, somewhere out there, may be a former nun who warmly remembers the tough-talking Caulfield.

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