I wonder if Holden Caulfield’s suitcases are still in a strongbox at Grand Central. No doubt his parents had the good sense to retrieve them after he returned home, ill and soaked to the bone, with his distressed sister Phoebe. Or so I can only assume. Holden glosses over his homecoming in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, leaving the reader to dwell on his lonely, three-day odyssey through New York after his expulsion from a fancy prep school.
I approached Catcher with eager curiosity rather than the wary reluctance that seems to be the order of the day, an unfortunate consequence of it being required reading in many American schools; we never really want to read what we are being told to read. Luckily, since I attended an international school in the Netherlands, I bear no ill will toward many American classics, which I now peruse at my leisure.
No detail in Catcher is unintentional and without meaning, from the smell of the entryway of Holden’s New York home (cauliflower and perfume) to his dead brother Allie’s left-handed baseball glove. Even the cigarette smoke Holden accidentally blows into a nun’s face means something. We perceive, in what he says as much as what he doesn’t say, the depth of his despair and heartbreak—over the death of his younger brother, the insincerity of adults, the violent suicide of one of his classmates. Yet despite the dark subject matter, it’s tremendous fun to keep track of the recurring images throughout the story and to put the puzzle pieces together. I almost wish someone would quiz me on this book.
The night Allie dies of leukemia, Holden injures his right hand punching out all the windows of the garage. He can no longer curl his hand into a proper fist: “I can’t make a good fist with that hand. On account of that injury I told you about.” The pain of his brother’s death will never leave him. But because of the injury, Holden’s hand also assumes the qualities of Allie’s baseball glove—open, receptive, never fully closed (and, because it’s a left-handed mitt, it’s worn on the right hand). In other words, Holden’s grief is what gives him the ability to fulfill his dearest wish:
I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day.
And he unwittingly does, by telling us his story. Holden catches us—“holds” us—in the palm of his broken hand.
On the inside of Allie’s baseball glove are poems, written in green ink.
One truth particularly deserving of universal acknowledgment is that there are a threatening number of “great works of literature.” You can read the most famous book, the most written-about book, and the most contentious book, but there are still myriads jockeying for position in the background. A simple fix for this paralyzing situation is the domestic bookshelf. Which recently recommended book is actually obtainable?
That’s how I found myself reading Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh. It was interesting enough for me to petition a roommate to put the next book, Officers and Gentlemen, on hold at the library. This led to a later lunchtime google of “Unconditional Surrender Project Gutenberg,” and the trilogy was brought to an end. If you like Evelyn Waugh’s occasionally dark, oftentimes satirical humor, you won’t be disappointed with the Sword of Honour series. There are many who could write—and have written, in these very pages—extensively and eruditely about the merits of this trilogy.
What does this series have to offer? It has Guy Crouchback. There is nothing very exceptional about Guy. His family is unique in that it has always remained Catholic, and that there is a “Castello Crouchback” in Italy, but on the whole, the Crouchback family is fading. In the first book, Guy struggles to become a soldier (a long process, as he’s a touch too old to be wanted anywhere), and the following two books record his different (mis)adventures. In almost every way, he’s very average. You could say that he’s just a normal guy. Yet, this non-ostentatious nature makes Guy and his series stand out all the more. The choices Guy makes are directly relatable to our own lives. In other classics, the dramatic actions of the characters act as megaphones for what to do or what not to do—it’s not hard to miss the memo. With the Sword of Honour trilogy, though, you have to quiet down to hear what’s being said. And we could all do with a little quiet—and not just those of us in Manhattan.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?