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Punching Out Holden Caulfield

March 15, 2014
It's never good when you see one of these coming right at you!

It’s never good when you see one of these coming right at you! (image via wikimedia)

I have to admit to you before you read any further that I’ve never punched out Holden Caulfield.  It’s just that sometimes I make up stories or exaggerate, and then I’m stunned when people actually believe me.  I even wrote an ebook about that, but I’m not trying to pitch a book right now.  I’m trying to make a point about The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

A friend of mine who doesn’t know anything about Dysfunctional Literacy is reading The Catcher in the Rye and really likes it.  When he raves about it, I smile and nod.  I don’t tell people not to enjoy the books they enjoy.  I might write it in a blog, but I don’t tell it to their faces.

And I don’t really want to punch out Holden Caulfield.  First of all, I’m not a violent person.  I haven’t been in a fight in over 30 years.  Secondly, I hit like a girl.  I know girls who hit in a more manly fashion than I do.  If you want to insult a man’s fighting ability, don’t say he hits like a girl; say he hits like Jimmy Norman.  Thirdly, Holden Caulfield isn’t a real person.  Even if I wanted to punch him out, I couldn’t because he doesn’t exist.  The only thing dumber than trying to punch out a fictional character is trying to go on a date with one.  I wanted to ask out Becky Thatcher when I was a kid, but I knew that Tom Sawyer would want to punch me out.  I used to have a tough time distinguishing fiction from reality, but I’m better now.

The only reason I mention punching out Holden Caulfield is because he’s a whiner.  I hear a lot of whining nowadays.  I hear whining from younger co-workers (one of whom is my boss).  I hear whining from my kids.  I hear whining from parents who whine about their whining kids.  Maybe I’m whining here, but I have a point.

I don’t know if people used to whine as much in the old days before my old days.  But I don’t see much whining in old literature.  I see everything else.  I see greed, lust, betrayal, murder.  Just about every negative characteristic around is portrayed somewhere in classic literature.  But I don’t see much whining.

I think Holden Caulfield was the first literary whiner.  I could be wrong.  But Holden Caulfield whines a lot in The Catcher in the Rye, and a lot of readers sympathize with him.  I never have.  Even when I first read The Catcher in the Rye as a young adult (before there was a section in bookstores for Young Adults), I thought Holden Caulfield was a whiner.  I even said it.  Then people told me to shut up.  I think one Holden Caulfield apologist even said “Shut up like hell.”  Maybe he was being funny.

Just because Holden Caulfield says “hell” and “damn” all the time doesn’t make him cool.  I said “hell” and “damn” when I was a kid, and nobody thought I was cool.  I even said “sh**” and “f***” and “***hole” and “mother*******” and nobody thought I was cool.  Now I say things like “heck” and “darn” and “dulgernet” and “dagnabbit,” and people think I’m just as uncool as when I said those other words.  If people are going to think that I’m not cool, I might as well say things that aren’t cool.

Plus, this is one of the lamest book covers ever!

Plus, this is one of the lamest book covers ever!

I wouldn’t want to try to punch out Tom Sawyer, or Huckleberry Fin, or Jim, or any other fictional character.  They could all take me down.  I wouldn’t want to fight D’Artagnan, or Ahab, or Oliver Twist, not even Ebenezer Scrooge (a cane is pretty good weapon). But I could take Holden Caulfield.  I’m pretty sure of it.  Anybody who spends that much effort whining has never learned how to fight.  A guy who knows how to fight usually doesn’t whine.  A guy who knows how to fight would rather punch you out than whine.

If I get the chance (I know he’s not real), I wouldn’t punch out Holden Caulfield, even if I got one free shot with a promise of no retribution.  It’s just that maybe if The Catcher in the Rye had been universally panned, if readers had rejected Holden Caulfield as a whiner instead of embracing him, maybe there would be less whining in the world today.  I’m not blaming all the world’s problems on Holden Caulfield; I’m just blaming all the whining on him.  So if I HAD to punch out a literary character, absolutely had to or the world would end, then I’d punch out Holden Caulfield.


Am I wrong?  Is Holden Caulfield a whiner?  What literary characters would you like to punch out (even if you wouldn’t really do it)?  Is it wrong to use the phrase “punch out?”  Am I being a bad role model for impressionable youth?  Or is Holden Caulfield a bad role model for impressionable youth?  Are youth impressionable anymore, or are they more impressionable than ever?

  1. Love this post. The next time I get into a fight (wich hopefully will be never) I will tell my opponent that he hits like Jimmy Norman. He will be confused and I’ll win. Ha. I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye in high school and I was underwhelmed. I agree with you about the whining and complaining. Maybe this was the start of what has been a generation of whiners. Tony Saprano has lamented almost the exact same thing. Not specifically about Catcher in the Rye but more generally about why his generation and this present generation have such different ways of dealing with adversity. One lterary character I would have liked to punch is Jesus. He did a fantastic amount of whining: the Pharisees, rich people, money changers, mobs who wanted to stone people, people who prayed in public. Maybe Jesus means “constant complainer” in Jewish. Maybe if I fought Jesus earlier in his life he may have toughened up and then had a some fight in him when the Romans came for him. But then maybe I would have become as infamous as Judas and my name would become synonymous with the “the jack ass who beat up a skinny, gentle, carpenter.”

    • I probably wouldn’t mess with Jesus. All my/our sins are forgiven because of him, and even in my grouchiest of moods, I appreciate that. Plus, getting crucified had to suck. There are a lot of ways that I don’t want to go out, and crucifixion’s got to be one of the worst. I think I’d cut Jesus some slack.

  2. I desperately want to bitchslap Rodion Raskolnikov.

    • Who is he? (I’m assuming it’s a man).

      • He’s the person that is most talked about (you can’t call him the hero) in “Crime And Punishment.” He kills a pawnbroker and then feels guilty about for a thousand pages.

        • Ooohhhh. I started reading Crime and Punishment” years ago but, you nailed it, it was a thousand pages of him feeling guilty. He seemed so unsuited to murder. I gave up after a while.

    • If you did bitchslap him, it would take a Russian author 400 pages to describe it.

  3. Finally, someone who talks sense. I can’t stand catcher in the rye. I tried to struggle through it, determined to finish the literary classic but I couldn’t.

    I don’t get the love of the book and I don’t get Holden Caulfield!!

    • I think when I read it years ago, a kid character saying “hell” and “damn” was still a novelty, and that was why some people (not all) liked the book. I saw through him from the beginning. I’m glad other people agree with me because for so long, I thought I was the only one.

  4. Your post is so interesting. I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye when I was young and I loved it. I read it again as an adult and I still loved it. I told one of my high school kids he should read it because it was so good. He did and he hated the book. He hated Holden Caufield. I’ll have to ask him again why, but I’d never thought of HC as a whiner. I always thought of him as lost and in pain. I’ll have to read it again! I’m trying to think of another literary character I’ve been frustrated with, but I can only think of the whining authors of memoirs, my least favorite genre!

    • The thing is, I didn’t hate the book. I thought it was interesting enough to read, but my reaction to Holden Caulfield was way different from that of all my friends’. You’re right about memoirs. If I read one, I figure it’s all lies before I start.

  5. Anonymous permalink

    HC may have been one of the leading edges of a wave… I work with kids all day long. The problem seems to be “I am not responsible for my problems” and “This is Not Fair.” Seems like whining to me. But…their parents do it to.

    • Their parents probably read The Catcher in the Rye. And maybe the parents’ parents did too. That’s several generations of whining that we can blame on Holden Caulfield.

  6. Also. Not to. Damn autocorrect. And it keeps trying to change autocorrect to incorrect. Now, that is funny.

  7. You are not wrong. One of the most overrated books/characters of all time.

  8. I would punch Bella from Twilight, who is simply one of the worst characters ever created…ever. It infuriates me as a writer that Stephanie Myers made $1 from this abortion of a character. My wife is making me watch the whole series of movies right now and she says Bella is just as stupid in the books as she is in the movies. She is the worst human being ever created. If I had the option of killing Hitler or Bella from Twilight, I would still kill Hitler, but I would think about it.

    • I don’t think I could hit a girl (even though I hit like one), even if she’s fictional. I read the first couple chapters of the first book and haven’t seen any of the movies, but I’ve heard very few people over the age of 16 say much positive about the books or the character.

  9. I don’t love whiners either. As for Bella Swan, I don’t think she’s the worst character ever created, but she and Edward both invited slapping fairly often.

    • I don’t know if people will still be reading Twilight a couple generations from now, like they do with The Catcher in the Rye. Bella might disappear into obscurity in a few years, but I think we’re stuck with Holden Caulfield.

  10. Catcher is a book that has to hit a certain kind of person at a certain time in life. If it misses you, or you miss it, you will want to punch HC, no doubt. It was gospel to me when I read it the first few times (in middle school, then high school, then college). I got a little tired of HC’s whining the last time I read it, a few years after kind of growing up a little, but I still appreciated the skill with which it was written. Salinger acheived a voice and tone that was not his own and sustained it for the duration without ever missing a note. Have you read Seymour: An Introduction? In that book there is a very different Salinger/Caulfield. A masterful writer who has learned how to say what’s said in Catcher in a much more profound way. That’s another book that you have to be ready for. I wasn’t, the first couple of tries. And it’s not for everyone. But it’s so good.

    I’ve only read Tom Sawyer once, as a child. I should probably give it another go. I didn’t like it at first. I wanted to punch TS for tricking people into whitewashing his fence, but he turned out to be okay. I remember it being a good adventure story. But I never felt pulled to read it again. I think I missed it, or it missed me. Or mabye I’m not a Tom Sawyer kind of guy. I do think most people could be classified as TS people or HC people, like some people are Beatles or Stones people. Both are great, but not too many like both equally.

    • I’ve read Tom Sawyer only once (I think). I think I like the character and SOME of the story more than I like the book in its entirety. I haven’t read Seymour: An Introduction. I don’t think I’ve even heard of it (so I can’t pretend to have read it), but I’ll look it up. I might not read it, but I’ll at least look it up.

  11. I’ve never read The Catcher in the Rye because both of my parents dislike it. If I was going to punch out a character, it would have to be Tess Durbeyfield from Tess of the D’urbervilles. She is the biggest self-pity-whiner I’ve ever endured. I was happy when the book was over and she got what she deserved for whining so much.

  12. HUnter4086 permalink

    When I was 13 and first read ‘Catcher,’ I could not articulate why I disliked it. I mean, I sort of liked it. It was an adventure story at heart: a child let loose to do what he wanted while evading authority. Splendid! Yet at the same time, I thought this Caulfield fellow was quite the little bitch.

    Let me elaborate why, now that I am old and can use my words.

    Holden was never in danger. He could do what he wanted, on any angst-y whim, because nothing was really at stake. He was wealthy. He was indulged. He could never fall, or at least not as far as people in less fortunate circumstances. Nevertheless that book was pushed as a book about rebellion. Holden, in his stupid red hat, was my ‘spokesman’ – even though I was a girl living in the Canadian bush whose parents were on welfare. Never mind that! This dick Holden was somehow representative of youthful dissatisfaction, as he rode around Central Park in a taxi and surely got to check into the ponciest mental institution.

    I’d like to punch Hemingway. He was real, though.

  13. I feel like Holden Caulfield is a bit pathetic to punch. He doesn’t really infuriate me like some people. If I could punch one fictional character, it would be Robert Langdon from the DaVinci Code. That guy bugs me.

  14. I didn’t read Catcher until I was an adult, which is probably a good thing. Had I done so as a teen, I think HC would have put me right over the edge. Later still, I stumbled across the YA novelist Virginia Euwer Woolf’s novel Rated PG at a used book sale. That book about ripped my heart out of my chest, after which I read the entire Salinger oeuvre. Allow me to put it this way: When you’ve grown up as a middle class whiner, then hell, getting to know HC is little like looking in the damn mirror.

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  16. J.C. Henry permalink

    I never liked that book either. I couldn’t relate to the character. It was a drag to read and destroyed my good grade for an English class one semester when I was a Young Adult. I have never forgiven it.

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