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March 1, 2010

Holden and Andy

Way back smack dab in the middle of the last century, Americans still liked their popular literature to have, if not gravitas, at least some pretentious heft and coffee-table profundity. In 1950, the year before J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was published, the best-selling novel in America was Stephen Fermoyle's The Cardinal, a fictionalized life of Francis Cardinal Spellman, who was then in the middle of his 30-year run as Archbishop of New York. In the year that Catcher was published to mixed reviews and quite moderate sales, numbers one and two on the best-seller list were a couple of sweeping military dramas, From Here to Eternity by James Jones and The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk. During the year after the publication of Salinger's brief, sardonic account of an adolescent's awakening to the complications and hypocrisies of life in the nasty real world--ingeniously and impeccably told in the voice of said adolescent, Holden Caulfield--the most popular novel in America was Thomas B. Costain's epic of early Christianity, The Silver Chalice. It was followed on the charts at number three by John Steinbeck's East of Eden and, in sixth place, by Edna Ferber's giant Giant. A big country deserved big novels.

But a funny thing happened on the way to where we are now: All those basso profundo tomes about Powerful People, Important Events, and Significant Themes--each duly made into a Major Motion Picture--fell far behind Catcher's aggregate sales (eventually about 65 million copies), and even farther behind the Salinger novel's lasting effect on American culture. The reasons for the latter, I think, are mainly two. First, there's always a fresh generation of 16-year-olds who experience--whether right at sixteen or a few years later--that gobstopping shock of recognition when Holden's finds life to be crammed so nauseatingly full of "phonies." Second, The Catcher in the Rye turned out to be one of the first little surfboards on a wave of phenomena--let's call them collectively "Pop"--that quickly turned into a bluebird, then an eagre, and finally the tsunami that broke over everything from books to movies to TV to paintings in museums and left us with The Hills, the Twilight novels, and the "Easy Fun" paintings of Jeff Koons.

Certainly, other novels have been narrated in the plaintive first-person voice of someone speaking heartfelt, unheard truth to distant, uncaring power. But Holden's immortal opening lines provided a glimpse in a huge change in the way we were starting to think about ourselves. "If you really want to hear about it," Holden says, "the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

Now who does that sound like? Hold your breath: Andy Warhol. Of course, Warhol--probably destined to be known until the end of time adolescently as "Andy"--did not actually speak like that. In fact, he never spoke much in public at all. But Warhol, too, never felt like "going into it." The last thing he wanted to go into was that he was a Czech-American, mass-attending Catholic boy from Pittsburgh. Nowhere in his flat, crass and affectless silkscreened pictures of Marilyn, Liz or Jackie lay the slightest hint of what his childhood was like or how his parents were occupied before they had him or any of that David Copperfield kind of crap.

Later in Catcher, Holden says, "I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. It's terrible." Now that's pure Andy. On camera, he once asked an interviewer to tell him the answers to the questions so that he, Andy, could simply repeat them. He employed an actor in an identical silver wig to impersonate him on a college lecture tour. And very early on, when talent-hunting art dealer dropped by his studio to take a look at scruffy paintings that were rumored to out-weird even Roy Lichtenstein's enlarged comic-book panels, Warhol played a single of Dicky Lee's decidedly not-immortal "I Saw Linda Yesterday" over and over and over for three solid hours. (Andy usually listened to classical music all day.)

Holden's battle with the cruel split between his own vulnerable sincerity and what he saw as the cruel hypocrisy of the adult world ("adult" in 1951 meant wearing a necktie and writing checks) is, of course, the fictive embodiment of Salinger's struggle with the chasm between plainspoken emotional truth straight from the soul of such a character as Holden, and big-time American literature with a capital "L." It's also quite like Warhol's subversive guerilla action against the gulf between the simple direct beauty of such icons of mass culture as the Campbell soup can, and the augustness of high-end art galleries and museums. Holden, being a teenager, got mad and beat himself up over the way things were. Andy, being a talented, astute and highly successful illustrator in the employ of Mad Men men, figured out a smarter strategy. He accepted the urban world warts and all, and acted like he agreed with everybody and everything. Sooner rather than later, the gulf collapsed, and Warhol's soup cans, Marilyns and Jackies were welcomed into the tony chambers of modern art.

Had Holden Caulfield been able to stick around New York, it's plausible he might have taken some classes at the Art Students League and switched over to painting. But he would have probably found the breast-beating self-importance of the Abstract Expressionists as "phony" as the stuffy self-importance of hidebound realists. He'd have relished Pop Art's sticking it to the fine arts and all, and might have become a Pop Artist himself, silkscreening and Ben-Day-ing garishly bright pictures of, say, hookers in Times Square.

It's also not hard to imagine Caulfield--if his fever of disgust with school broke in a cold sweat during the night--zipping right through college to graduate school and winding up one of those conference-going post-modern English professors whose academic specialty is the semiotics of, say, Campbell's soup can labels. He'd be about 75 now, pushing back against the pressure to retire. After all, the students still love the way a white-haired prof understands them so well, has those neat framed Jeff Koons posters on his office wall, and assigns chick-lit novels instead of all that David Copperfield and John Steinbeck kind of crap. None of this Big Books about Important Themes for him--certainly not nearly 60 years after The Catcher in the Rye started to put all those phonies on the run.

March 1, 2010 10:11 AM | | Comments (4)

4 Comments

This reflects a very fundamental misunderstanding of "The Catcher in the Rye." The novel became especially popular in the 1960's because Holden is a counterculture character, and he's especially contemptuous of money. He ridicules the businessman who comes to speak at Pencey; hates the idea that he should work hard in school so that he could "own a cadillac someday"; he is made uncomfortable by the fact that his valises are better than his roommate's and his breakfast is better than the nuns'; notices the elderly bellboy at the hotel, commenting "what a gorgeous job for a guy that age"; says that if he were to become a lawyer he'd go around defending innocent guys, rather than trying to make a lot of money; and finally, when he's nearly broke, he throws his last coins in the lake. As he says at one point, "money. It always leaves you feeling blue." Warhol, on the other hand, ran his "studio" like a factory and paid a great deal of attention to the promotion and sale of his work. Holden, like Salinger, expresses the desire to live in the woods, which is exactly what Salinger did. When Salinger was invited to The White House by Jackie, he declined the invitation. I can't think of a more unlikely comparison between the avidly commercial Warhol and the reclusive Salinger, and his hero, Holden. Clearly, Warhol is the one who benefits by the comparison, but it just doesn't hold up.

1. The comparison was between Andy Warhol and Holden Caulfield; I left J.D. Salinger himself out of it.

2. Paragraph #6, the "nut graf" of the piece, explains that although Holden Caulfield and Andy Warhol faced similiar abstract foes--the "phoniness" of (in Holden's case) society in general, and (in Warhol's case) the Abstract Expressionist art world of his time--their reactions were quite different. Holden's was to resist it with all his adolescent might, while Warhol's was to trump it.

3. People change, though. Holden Caulfield wouldn't have stayed sixteen forever. Think of all the poets/radicals/loners/ascetics you knew in high school who are quite different today. I thought I was pretty mild, in fact, in speculating about Holden's life trajectory: Pop artist or groovy English professor. For all we know, he could have taken revenge on all those "phoneys" by becoming a Bernie Madoff. ("The Caulfield Fund"--has a nice ring to it.)

4. Holden Caulfield is one of those characters in literature (Elizabeth Bennet is another) who acquire followings of a hero/heroine-worship nature. ("Absolutely not! Holden [or Elizabeth] would never have done THAT!") I try to tamp down my acolyte's rooting interest in fictional characters, except for the central one in Fred Exley's "A Fan's Notes."

5. Andy Warhol was a very complex person, and there's a good argument that his being "avidly commercial" was taken to such an all-pervasive, totally encompassing extreme, that it morphed into something else almost the opposite. Especially after he was shot and nearly killed in 1968, the "commercial" Warhol more resembled one of those strange hoarders on A&E than he did an art mogul, such as today's Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst.

Peter Plagens’s article operates primarily on the esthetic dimension, dealing with how the two artists’ works capture a new way of apprehending reality that pushed the envelope one more step. Plagens himself is riffing between the two genre in a quite playful way, though, in a deadly serious vein.

Holden is very clearly an artist and a person who makes aesthetic judgments, and he could not be more different in terms of his tastes from Warhol. In terms of the books Holden likes, his aesthetic theory boils down to his statement that he likes a book if, after reading it, he feels like he wants to call up the author. The books that he likes include Out of Africa, The Return of the Native and The Great Gatsby. He makes another aesthetic judgment when he sees Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, a performance he criticizes because Olivier comes across more like "a goddamn general" than a "sad, messed up kind of guy." In both cases, what he responds to in art is the personal element. One sees this also in his approach to speech class: he's not interested in a speech that's structured in a formal way, but in one in which the speaker expresses himself personally. Another example of this is the poems his brother Allie wrote in his baseball mitt. Warhol was always very clear that his art was not lyrical or personal and that the content was a reflection of the world and not his emotional response to it. Holden was interested in emotional responses.

The comparison with Frederick Exley is a much better one. Holden and the narrator of A Fan's Notes are both at war with the world but end up nearly destroying themselves, although they survive and perhaps adjust.

What all these works have in common is that they are responses to Postwar America. I don't think Warhol was responding to Abstract Expressionism so much as he was responding to what he read in magazines and newspapers and saw on the television. I know we're supposed to to think of art in terms of some grand dialectic, but that's an invention of art historians, not artists. Perhaps there's an element of slyness in Warhol's work, but he's not alienated by the world he lives in, whereas Holden and Frederick Exley are.

If I were to compare Holden to a visual artist, it would be to Joan Brown, particularly her work of the '70's and '80's. Her work was intensely personal, and it grew out of her attachment to the people she loved, like her son, Noel. If Holden were to have become an artist, I think his work might have reflected his relationships with his brother and sister, to whom he was quite devoted. Interestingly, both Salinger and Joan Brown became very involved in Eastern religion.

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