In the sixth grade, the Boys’ Vice-Principal threatened to suspend me from school unless I stopped carrying around A Catcher in the Rye I think because it had the word “fuck” in it. Since the Boys’ Vice-Principal hadn’t read the book – and I don’t think he’d ever read any book – he couldn’t tell me why.
But Mrs. Gordon was cool. She let me keep the book at my desk and read it at recess as long as I kept a brown wrapper over the cover.
I think J.D. Salinger would have liked Mrs. Gordon. She wanted to save me from the world’s vice-principals, the guys who wanted to train you in obedience to idiots and introduce you the adult world of fear and punishment. Mrs. Gordon wanted to protect the need of a child to run free.
That’s, of course, how the word fuck got into Salinger’s book. For the 5% of you who haven’t read it, the main character of the book, Holden Caulfield, tries to erase the f-word off the wall of a New York City school. He doesn’t want little kids like his sister Phoebe to see it, that somehow it would trigger an irreversible loss of her childhood innocence:
I thought Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them—all cockeyed, naturally—what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days.
Which is where the title came from. Salinger’s Caulfield, pushed to the edge of his own youth and directed to prepare himself for the job market, could see for himself only one career: as a catcher in the rye. He imagined a bunch of kids playing away happily in a rye field, but a field on a cliff’s-edge. Every time a child, lost in their game, would drift toward the edge, Caulfield’s job would be to catch them before they fell.
Any other job would just turn you into a “phony,” that is, an adult. All adults were phonies, even the nice ones, who took jobs they hated, taught textbooks and catechisms they didn’t believe and lived lives of self-inflicted disappointments, while pretending it was all OK. Then with phony grins, they’d demand that you join their painful parade of delusion and decay.
Nearly half a century after I covered up Salinger’s book in a carefully folded brown wrapper, I thought I’d read it to my twins. They were now eleven, in the 6th grade.
But I couldn’t. In his 1956 book, Salinger had railed against a post-war world of boys in school blazers trying to get to “first base” with their steady dates. America itself was an adolescent, and despite the police beatings of marchers in Alabama, despite the “drop, tuck and don’t look at the flash!” drills we did weekly in Mrs. Gordon’s class to prepare for the Russian nuclear attack, America was still weirdly, optimistically child-like.
We knew then that the world could only get better: we would go the moon and eventually, vacation there. JFK announced the Alliance for Progress and poverty would end in Appalachia; and Paul McCartney wanted to hold our hand. Every nasty meanie, like police in Selma, was met by a legion of victorious innocents led by Martin Luther King. So we all held hands in a circle while Pete Seeger strummed “We shall overcome.” Everyone would get a scholarship; and we really, truly believed we would overcome.
Even the social critics – Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac – were just big, mischievous kids.
Yes, there were a bunch of old phonies like Joe McCarthy and the Boys’ Vice-Principal, but their days were numbered.
Then we fell over the cliff.
A bullet through the skull replaced Kennedy with Nixon. We shall overcome was replaced with the vicious “Southern Strategy;” the Cold War exploded in hot jungles; then came the idiot wasteland of the regimes of Ford and Carter and Reagan and Clinton and Bushes, a degenerative march as the machine of America rusted and died.
And here we are today, begging for spare parts from China and my daughter glued to YouTube videos of Lady Ga-Ga’s crotch, and my son slicing off a cop’s head in Grand Theft Auto and a President, telegenic and painfully hollow, playing the lost and ineffectual shepherd over an electorate divided between the terrified and the greedy. In place of prophets, we are offered a caravan of kvetching clowns piling out of the Volkswagen on MSNBC.
There’s no way to wipe the fuck off this smeared planet. I’m supposed to try. I’m an investigative reporter, meaning I have a professional commitment to the childish belief that if I shout loud enough, I can warn people away from the cliff’s edge.
Well, it’s better than a real job, but no less “phony,” no less of a petty illusion.
I’m holding this book, the brown wrapper lost who the hell knows when, and I know it would just be laughable, inscrutably ancient to those wisened, worldly children of mine.
I’ve put it back on my shelf.
You stand on the cliff edge and there’s no one left to catch.
Jerome David Salinger 1919-2010.
Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Armed Madhouse and The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, is a Nation Institute/Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow for investigative reporting. www.gregpalast.com.