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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

No One Told Holden That Thomas Hardy Was Dead.

Summer 1961, post Fullerton High graduation, a Buffum's Department store "young careerist," 9 hour work day, 5 days a week, wearing high heels, selling expensive lingerie to idle, often choleric women, who needed to see every slip. And this piece of apparel, worn beneath dresses, was slippery by nature. So, imagine folding fifty of them, not selling one, having to smile at the customer, who "is always right." Time, a buzzard pecking my head, from 9 a.m. onward. I worked 4 hours, took the last lunch break at 1:00. Nothing to eat, since few calories burned behind a counter. My only lunch hour sustenance? J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, all that long summer, read repeatedly, Holden Caulfield, my soul mate, who provided hours free of sanguine salesmanship, pitching undies, slips, nightgowns, and robes. (Bras not out in the open!) No idle time for clerks: fold and straighten, clean the glass counters. Yet Holden's sarcastic voice helped me smile when a privileged matron wanted to see every 'medium' slip in stock, though she obviously needed a larger size.

I knew well Holden's biggest fear; that he was a phony like everyone else. But he enlarged the meaning of phony beyond fake and artificial, such as my salesgirl smile. The real cultural obscenities were elitism and injustice, among many others. No matter that I was a girl (young woman not used); that my family was not rich; that I did not attend an Eastern prep school and had not lost a brother to leukemia. Despite obvious differences, I identified with Holden Caulfield.

Today, 59 years later, using DAM (divine automatic machine) I read a 1951, New Yorker review of Catcher in the Rye. Why, I wonder, did it take me a decade after Catcher's publication to discover the novel? The review is by S.N. Behrman, who admirably details Holden's "dark whirlpool churning below the unflagging hilarity of surface activities." The comic mask to hide the tragic boy, for whom the "emblazoned obscenities of life" are too much. The 'catcher in the rye' wants above all else to protect the innocence of his younger sister, Phoebe. But she tells him, "you (Holden) don't like anything that's happening." This is true. Holden is gasping in the "avalanche of disintegration around him."

He would like to call a few authors to set them straight. Only no one has told Holden that Thomas Hardy is dead! Until I read Behrman's review, I had forgotten this detail. It hit me today, given I recently wrote a blog about Thomas Hardy. The New Yorker review ends with author Bergman wanting to give J.D. Salinger a call. But the famous recluse did not take calls or grant interviews, a stance he largely maintained until his death at age 91. Sadly, my Salinger library is gone, the hardcovers given away, books that sustained me at USC: Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, plus Salinger's remarkable short story collection, Nine Stories. "Esme With Love and Squalor," is never to be forgotten.

Although I knew Catcher in the Rye from teaching it often during the 1970s, Bergman's review reminded me of forgotten details. One was Holden at the NYC Natural History Museum, loving its displays, which did not change. And this fed Holden Caulfield's deep hunger for stability. Does the novel work with adolescents today, who are 'informed' from every direction about how to process and label feelings? I would like to know.

Until next Monday…


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