J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is an anti-bildungsroman -- a "novel of education" without the least shred of moral, intellectual, or spiritual growth. Holden Caulfield, the novel's naive yet jaded narrator, learns absolutely nothing either about himself or about life. Unable to profit from his various encounters, he dismisses almost everyone he meets as "phony." That one adjective, repeated incessantly and ad nauseam, might lead a reader to hope that Holden will find authenticity somewhere in his horizon, but The Catcher in the Rye is not a novel that rewards optimism. It concludes with a vision of Holden's pre-pubescent sister Phoebe going "round and round" on a symbolic carousel-- going nowhere, it would seem -- and in a brief coda Holden himself has been institutionalized and placed under the care of an unsympathetic psychoanalyst. Nor does the whiff of Humbertism in the relation between Holden and young Phoebe contribute any last-second learning or cheer.
Even in the 1950s, The Catcher in the Rye enjoyed a cadre of fiercely loyal partisans who powerfully identified with Holden Caulfield. I didn't believe then, and certainly don't believe now, that Holden mirrored the anguish of my own particular soul. I was not a true believer, and I was not entranced by Holden. For me, the novel was nothing more than a better-than-average coming-of-age story -- although a dispiriting one because Holden Caulfield does not mature but instead remains stranded in perpetual, painful adolescence.
A novel without hope, The Catcher in the Rye has become an inspiration for the hopeless. In Los Angeles, in 1989, twenty-one-year-old Robert Bando shot and killed a young actress whom he had been pestering with trinkets and messages. In a nearby alley, police found a .357-caliber handgun, a bloody shirt, and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Two years later, John Hinckley shot and crippled James Brady and almost succeeded in assassinating Ronald Reagan. Hinckley had fantasized that killing the president would impress the actress Jodie Foster, whom he imagined that he was wooing. In his pocket he carried a well-read, tattered paperback of -- you guessed it --The Catcher in the Rye. In 1980, on Manhattan's West Side, Mark David Chapman, concealing his pistol under a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, shot John Lennon five times at point blank. He had inscribed his copy of the novel with the words "To Holden Caulfield from Holden Caulfield" -- Chapman had tried to legally change his name to that of Salinger's troubled narrator. From jail, the proud murderer issued an endorsement: "My wish is for all of you to someday read The Catcher in the Rye." At his trial Chapman asserted that he had killed Lennon because the singer had become "phony," and at his sentencing he read to the judge the section of the book in which Holden tells his sister Phoebe that he imagined himself in a field of rye with "thousands of little kids" whom he must prevent from falling off "the edge of some crazy cliff."
The Catcher in the Rye still sells well (15,000,000 copies in print by 1996) and has become a fixture in the high school and college classroom, where successive generations of adolescents can calibrate their degree of angst against Holden's. But increasingly, and paradoxically, attention has turned from the novel to Salinger himself, who has not published anything since 1965 and, secluded in his Cornish, New Hampshire retreat, has become the world's most notorious hermit since St. Simeon Stylites mounted his pillar in sixth-century Antioch. Although he is a hermit, Salinger is anything but a saint. In 1987, in a bizarre echo of Holden-obsessed stalkers, Salinger, then sixty-eight years old, flew to California and barged onto the set of the TV show Dynasty in search of one of the series's starlets, Catherine Oxenberg, with whom he had apparently fallen into long-distance electronic infatuation. He was "escorted" off the set. Did Catherine Oxenberg have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. Several, in fact, including Joyce Maynard, described as "the Lolita of all Lolitas," who was eighteen and a freshman at Yale in 1972 when Salinger, at the age of fifty-three, initiated a romance by sending her a fan letter. These and other even less savory details about Caulfield-Salinger's life can be found in Paul Alexander's thin, amateurish biography Salinger (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999), which does not propose, although it might, that J. D. has learned as little about life as his most famous character.