Bryan Caplan has some wonderful insights into the classic novel about youth and unhappiness, Catcher in the Rye [CITR].
1. Other than losing his brother Allie, Holden has no external problems. He is a rich kid living in the most amazing city in the world. Rather than appreciating his good fortune or trying to make the most of his bountiful opportunities, Holden seeks out fruitless conflict. If you still doubt that happiness fundamentally reflects personality, not circumstances, CITR can teach you something.
2. Nothing on Holden's Five Factor personality googles. I say he's high in Opennness, low in Conscientiousness, high in Extroversion, low in Agreeableness, and high in Neuroticism.
3. Although I was a teen-age misanthrope, anti-hero Holden Caulfield is more dysfunctional than I ever was. My dream was for everyone I disliked to leave me alone. Holden, in contrast, habitually seeks out the company of people he dislikes, then quarrels with them when they act as expected.
4. Even if Holden's enduring antipathy for "phonies" were justified, it's hard to see why the epithet applies to most of its targets....
Translation: ... For Holden, the main symptom of phoniness is that someone appears to like something Holden doesn't. But he never wonders, "Is it possible that other people sincerely like stuff I don't?"
5. If phonies are your biggest problem, your problems are none too serious.
6. You might think that only a navel-gazing New York intellectual could write CITR, but Salinger experienced far worse things than phonies. He fought in the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. He entered a liberated concentration camp in April, 1945. Yet strangely, the moral of CITR isn't that Holden's self-pity is shameful.
7. I doubt Salinger was being Straussian. Like most of CITR's fans, he thought Holden has important things to teach us. Yet the book's deepest and most important lesson is that Holden's thoughts are profoundly shallow and unimportant. The Holdens of the world should stop talking and start listening, for they have little to teach and much to learn.
It is clearly time for me to reread Catcher in the Rye. I didn't much like the novel when I read it as a young adult, and Caplan's points help me understand why. Maybe it was just that I didn't much like Holden Caulfield and was disappointed in his whiny-ness and general dissatisfaction -- his phony criticisms of phoniness.
And yet I wonder if phoniness must have been an important issue for writers then (as if it isn't much of the time, I guess). Coincidentally, I'll be appearing as Charley (the neighbour) in Death of a Salesman in September.
I like the role. Charley seems to be one of the least phony characters in the play.
And these thoughts bring to mind the criticisms of phoniness and mendacity in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.