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Hi, I’m John Green and this is Crash Course Literature
and today we’re going to talk about The Catcher in the Rye,
the bestselling book never to be adapted into a film.
Mr. Green, Mr. Green!
What about the Quran?
Fair enough, Me from the Past,
but there’s a religious injunction there.
The reason this has never been made into a movie is of course
because Salinger and his estate won’t allow it.
[spoilsporting FTL or Litigation as sport FTW?]
But how this text—
I mean, even most of Salinger’s covers are imageless—
has managed to remain relevant without a movie adaptation
in our image-saturated and image-driven culture is a very interesting question.
[but not one to subject TFIOS to, if you please]
And so today we’re gonna take a look at the pure and unadulterated text of
The Catcher in the Rye.
Now there are many ways to read a novel critically,
and next week we’ll take a very different approach:
We’ll infuriate J.D Salinger’s ghost by reading this novel in a historical
and biographical context.
But today, let’s appease Salinger’s ghost by pretending
that he as a person never existed.
[intro music]
[intro music]
[intro music]
[intro music]
These days our artistic landscape is so deeply defined by visual narratives
on TV and in the movies that we can hardly imagine a world without images.
[or without HBO, ideally]
In fact, I’d argue that we have a bad habit
of seeing books as sort of cheaply-made movies
where the words do nothing but create visual narratives in our heads.
So too often what passes for literary criticism is
“I couldn’t picture that guy” or “I liked that part”
or “This part shouldn’t have happened;”
that is, we’ve left language so far behind that sometimes
we judge quality solely based on a story’s actions.
So we can appreciate a novel that constructs its conflicts
primarily through plot—
the layered ambiguity of a fatal car accident caused
by a vehicle owned by Gatsby but driven by someone else, for instance.
But in this image-drenched world, sometimes we struggle to appreciate
and celebrate books where the quality arises not exclusively from plot
but also from the language itself. [did things just get a bit personal?]
Holden Caulfield, by the way,
was aware of this because he too lived in an image-driven world.
I mean,
on the very first page of the book, Holden calls his brother a prostitute
for abandoning bookwriting for Hollywoodband says,
“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.”
[hipsters can be such haters]
And the novel frequently identifies itself in direct opposition to film,
as for instance when Holden says,
“I don’t remember if he knocked me out or not, but I don’t think so.
It’s pretty hard to knock a guy out, except in the goddam movies.”
By the way, for the record,
it is okay to say “Charlotte Bronte” if you are quoting the book in question.
But, now, outside of the text, I have to use “Charlotte Bronte.”
Stan, I know we have to do it for the schools,
but this prohibition on cursing is so Emily Bronte annoying.
[see what he did there]
Okay so if you’ll just allow me one biographical note here,
Salinger once wrote in a letter,
“‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is a very novelistic novel.
There are readymade ‘scenes’— only a fool would deny that—
but, for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice,
the non-stop peculiarities of it,
his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener.
He can’t legitimately be separated from his own first-person technique.”
Alright, but before we examine that first-person technique,
let’s go to the image-tastic Thought Bubble.
Catcher in the Rye is the story of Holden Caulfield’s expulsion from Pencey Prep
and his journey back home to New York City,
where he bums around for a few days trying to get someone to listen to him
and meaningfully respond to his fears about becoming an adult—
Holden has grown six inches in the past year
and one side of his head is full of gray hair,
both symbols of impending, inevitable adulthood
and its accompanying adulteration of innocence.
He’s so obsessed with and protective of innocence
that he can’t even throw a snowball at a car because the car quote
“looked so nice and white.”
Over and over again, Holden tries to reach out to people
who might tell him that adulthood will be okay—
friends, old teachers, a prostitute, a nun, cab drivers--
but he can never quite find a way to ask these questions directly,
and anyway, no one ever listens to him.
Nothing much else happens:
There are no explosions or car chases and certainly no skoodilypooping,
as Holden Caulfield is perhaps the first human in history
ever to pay a prostitute not to have sex with him.
What Holden really wants is not
sex or money or power or any of the dramatic stuff in Hollywood movies:
He wants to stop time.
As he famously says when thinking about the Natural History Museum,
“The best thing, though,
in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was.”
Holden wants to be a protector of innocence—
a catcher in the rye—
but he also wants to stay innocent himself.
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
So one way this is explored is through sex.
Holden is certainly very interested in sexuality,
and he acknowledges his sexual desire,
but what he knows of the adult world of sex is very scary and even abusive.
After a possible sexual advance from a trusted adult near the end of the novel,
Holden says,
“That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid.”
[grody to the maXXX]
Like a lot of what Holden tells us about his feelings, that’s very subtle
and it requires close reading. But it’s important.
Like it’s easy to see why the adult world strikes Holden as so phony:
The only adult who pays attention to him in the entire novel has ulterior motives.
So he just wants to stop time
to keep himself and the people he cares about away from that world.
You may remember this obsession with stopping time—
holdin’ time back, [grumble] if you’ll pardon the pun—
from The Great Gatsby.
Of course,
that doesn’t work out for Gatsby, just as it doesn’t work for Holden.
I mean, the kid’s sixteen-years-old and he’s already got gray hair.
[worked for Anderson "silverfox" Cooper]
Oh, it’s time for the Open Letter?
[Solo Green squarely skids to score specific seat singly significant to self]
An Open Letter to Gray Hair.
But first, let’s see what’s in the secret compartment today.
Oh, thank God, it’s the red hunting cap.
Oh, my people-hunting hat.
[the most dangerous game]
Stan, I know this is corny,
but I just feel so much more confident when I’m wearing it.
It’s kind of my emblem of protection.
Dear Gray Hair,
You generally result from the wisdom that comes with age,
or else someone experiencing a great fright.
But gray hair, if you’re associated with age,
how come you’ve already attacked Holden Caulfield?
And more importantly, how come you’ve already attacked ME?
I just had a haircut,
and not a great one I might add, [for reals. Poufador? Pompapouf?]
and my [former] stylist said,
“Do you think we should dye your hair? You ARE on YouTube.”
There’s no room in the brave, new media world for wisdom or age.
Holden Caulfield, I’m beginning to know what it’s like to be you.
Gray hair, all of this leads,
as T.S. Eliot put it, to an “overwhelming question,”
should I dye my hair?
Eh, I think I’ll just stick with my red hat.
It covers my gray hair and [preempts Stan from flicking his ears]
it makes me feel like I can take on the crushing phoniness of the adult world.
Best Wishes, John Green
Okay, let’s now turn to what Salinger called Holden’s first-person technique.
So, all these experiences are obviously very important and intense to Holden.
I mean, he’s writing us about the stuff that led him to a mental hospital.
But, the intensity of these emotions is masked by the tactics of his narration.
I mean, we just saw how subtly he hints at sexual abuse, for instance.
And also, Holden uses the passive voice constantly,
which of course you’re not supposed to do as a writer.
Look, for instance, at this sentence,
“The reason I was standing way up on Thomsen Hill,
instead of down at the game,
was because I’d just got back from New York with the fencing team.”
Any writing teacher would tell you that this is a disaster.
You ought to say, “I stood way up on Thomsen Hill,”
not “I was standing on it.”
But this passive voice is a coping mechanism.
I mean,
the whole reason that writing teachers tell you not to use the passive voice
is because it creates distance, whereas active verbs feel immediate and real.
But Holden needs to create distance between himself
and the reality of his pain.
I mean, he’s standing on top of that hill because he’s been expelled from school
and also because everyone hates him
because he left the fencing team’s equipment on the subway
thereby forcing them to forfeit, becoming
the first person in history to lose the big game WITHOUT BEING ON THE TEAM.
Who wouldn’t want to distance themselves from that humiliation?
You see this again and again in Holden’s voice, and you also see
other strategies of minimization of language as a form of self-protection.
I mean, he describes his institutionalized self as
“pretty run down.”
He says that Ackley is “sort of a nasty guy.”
He “sort of” strikes up a conversation with a cab driver,
asking him what happens to the ducks in the pond when winter comes.
Late in the novel, he sort of gives his sister, Phoebe, a kiss.
In fact, the phrase “sort of” appears in the novel 179 times.
Also, even sixty years later, Holden’s voice still sounds authentic,
which is a function of grammar and word choice.
After Stradlater asks the expelled Holden to write a composition for him
because he quote “doesn’t know where to put the commas,” Holden writes,
"That’s something else that gives me a royal pain. I mean if
you’re good at writing compositions and somebody starts talking about commas.
Stradlater was always doing that.
He wanted you to think that the only reason HE was lousy at
writing compositions was because he stuck all the commas in the wrong places.
He was a little bit like Ackley, that way.”
You see what Holden did there?
He stuck a comma in the wrong place;
there shouldn’t technically be a comma before “that way,” but it sounds right.
[also suffer with comma vomit, a bit]
But Holden’s greatest gift as a narrator is that all these techniques
of creating distance only make it easier to empathize with him,
especially when his defenses finally break down.
I mean, look, for instance,
at this passage where he’s talking about his brother Allie’s baseball glove:
“He had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere.
In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he’d have
something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up at bat. He’s dead now.”
The gutpunch of those last three words is brilliant—
a present tense sentence in a past tense novel.
We go from imagining a kid standing in the outfield reading poetry from his glove
to knowing that this kid is dead— not that he died or that he passed away
but that he IS dead now.
The tense reminds us that the dead don’t stop being dead;
that they remain dead, and that is how they haunt us.
Or another example, look at the use of the word listen in this novel.
Over and over again, characters— but especially Holden—
begin sentences with LISTEN.
“Listen, do you feel like playing canasta?” Holden asks Ackley.
Ackley doesn’t.
To Luce he says, “Listen, hey, Luce.
You’re one of those intellectual guys. I need your advice. I’m in a terrific—”
and then Luce cuts him off, unable to listen even to the end of the sentence.
But at the end of the novel, Holden says to Phoebe,
“Listen, do you want to go for a walk?”
It takes her a while— they start out walking on opposite sides of the street—
but they do go for a walk. Holden finally does get listened to.
Maybe you realize that as you’re reading
or maybe you don’t, but it works on you unconsciously regardless.
And so, moments later, you feel something welling up inside of you as Holden writes,
"I felt so damn happy all of a sudden,
the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling,
I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.
I don't know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice,
the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all.
God, I wish you could've been there.”
Look at the phrases that get repeated there:
“So Bronte happy” and “kept going around and around.”
Some say that Holden never changes in this novel,
but I think he does right there at the end.
The boy who wants nothing ever to change
becomes so damn happy when he sees his little sister going around and around.
When Holden stops thinking of time as a line toward corrupt adulthood
and starts imagining it as a circle where one goes around and around,
in a journey to and from innocence that lasts throughout life,
he can finally be so damn happy.
Yes, Holden never really gets anywhere.
And, yes, nothing much happens. He just keeps going around and around.
But that doesn’t mean nothing changes.
Thanks for watching.
Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller.
Our script supervisor is Meredith Danko.
The associate producer is Danica Johnson.
The show is written by me.
And our graphics team is Thought [Cafe] Bubble.
Every week, instead of cursing, I use the name of writers I like.
If you want to suggest future writers, you can do so in comments
where you can also ask questions about today’s video that will be answered
by our team of English Literature experts, mostly me.
[and perhaps Stan's Mom, Mrs. Muller!]
Thanks for watching Crash Course.
If you liked today’s video, make sure you’re subscribed.
And as we say in my hometown,
Don’t forget The Evolution of Sense Is, In a Sense, the Evolution of Nonsense.
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Language, Voice, and Holden Caulfield: The Catcher in the Rye Part 1

6563 Folder Collection
VoiceTube published on January 11, 2013
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