There is no shortage of documentaries and unauthorized biographies that can fill you in on the many myths and actualities concerning J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye. Admittedly, I’m bored to death with all the popular and literary prattle that has dogged Salinger for decades. I am, however, also stubbornly attached to his seminal novel and its protagonist, Holden Caufield.
As far as I know, Salinger was never a Boy Scout, but Holden Caufield apparently was. It’s an easily forgettable although not insignificant detail embedded deep within the novel’s eighteenth chapter. There, Holden states the following:
“I do know it’d drive me crazy if I had to be in the Army and be with a bunch of guys like Ackley and Stradlater and old Maurice all the time, marching with them and all. I was in the Boy Scout’s once, for about a week, and I couldn’t even stand looking at the back of the guy’s neck in front of me. They kept telling you to look at the back of the guy’s neck in front of you. I swear if there’s ever another war, they better just take me out and stick me in front of the firing squad I wouldn’t object…I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.”
In this passage, Holden reveals the essential contradiction that has set him on a trajectory towards the “terrible, terrible fall,” admonished by his English teacher, Mr. Antolini. In short, it is the contradiction between rebellion and obedience. On one hand, Holden cannot march in line with the other Boy Scouts or any institution where insubordination is rewarded with a death sentence. But on the other hand, Holden is prepared to act as mass executioner when called to do his duty.
The conflict between an impulse to rebel and an impulse to submit was the dangerous contradiction that structured the fascist character type, according to the mass-psychologist Wilhelm Reich. Holden Caufield does not know this in the eighteenth chapter, but he appears to have learned it by the novel’s conclusion.
The terrible fall is averted, and from behind the walls of a west-coast mental hospital, Holden confesses how he actually misses Ackley and Stradlater and all the other Boy Scouts he once held in contempt.