I read J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” for the first time just a few months ago. I’m not certain why I didn’t read it earlier. It’s hard to believe that the book would have still been viewed as “controversial” by the late 1980s, when I was in highschool. But it may have been, or perhaps there was an entirely different reason it was absent from the curriculum.
At any rate, I can imagine that the book would have affected me very differently as an adolescent than it did reading it now as an adult. It seems that most adolescents invariably identify with the book’s sullen protagonist, Holden Caulfield, and for good reason. Holden gives voice to a profound sense of alienation and confusion that resonates deeply with the experience of adolescence, for many.
As an adult reading the book, I was much more focused on the ways in which the adults in Holden’s life were failing him: failing to understand him, to listen to him, to perceive his obvious—if unruly—intelligence.
And as an attorney and a teacher of future attorneys, one passage in particular jumped out at me. It appears near the end of the book, on the page immediately preceding Holden’s revelation that what he wants out of life is to be “the catcher in the rye”—an adult who looks out for children who are lost or in danger; the exact person missing from Holden’s own life.
Holden comes to realize that he wants to be the catcher in the rye in the course of a conversation with his younger sister, Phoebe. She is worried about Holden and his malcontent ways, and is trying to figure out what her big brother will do with his life.
Phoebe asks Holden if he might become a lawyer, like their father. To which Holden replies:
“Lawyers are all right, I guess — but it doesn’t appeal to me,” I said. “I mean they’re all right if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. And besides. Even if you did go around saving guys’ lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys’ lives, or . . . you did it because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court when the goddam trial was over, the reporters and everybody . . . ? How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t.”
What is interesting is that Holden acknowledges that at least some lawyers do what Holden himself wants to do: to “save guys’ lives”; to help people. But he nonetheless has disdain for the profession, because even those lawyers that do help people are tainted by their class aspirations—their desire to “play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot,” or at the very least to appear successful and powerful.
Most damning is Holden’s belief that lawyer’s themselves are not even aware of their own motivations, and, indeed, cannot separate out their altruistic goals and their desire for personal and social power.
Part of me thinks this is true. That even those who desire to dismantle the master’s house have committed themselves to acquiring the master’s tools (as manifested by the decision to go to law school and become lawyers), and through this process necessarily relinquish some understanding of those who are disenfranchised. More than that, we necessarily come to identify to some extent with the class that has traditionally been empowered to move the levers of the law.
To return to a theme touched on elsewhere in this blog, resisting this impulse requires careful and intentional cultivation of a sort of double consciousness, where you acquire sufficient markers of the professional class to communicate effectively with others belonging to that class, while at the same time preserving the values and wisdom you had before you became a lawyer.