The Cat in the Hat: Salinger, Holden, and the Red Hunter’s Cap

A red hunters cap.
A red hunters cap.

The recent passing of J.D. Salinger affected me as I suspect it affected many others: after all the obits and reevaluations, the interviews and recapitulations and conversations about the man and his work and lifestyle, I found myself finally quiet and alone, thinking about The Catcher in the Rye, then Franny and Zooey, then about his other stories. I reread short passages, guided here and there by old brackets and check marks in margins, and took note of the dates I’d recorded on the inside front covers, timestamps of prior readings. (There was a lot of “Wow, what was it like when I read this then?” kind of stuff.)

One may not step in the same river twice, but books are more like attics—you can go back any time and the revisit the same clutter. You might have to duck, objects may be smaller (or larger) than they once appeared, but whirr isn’t just the wind, it’s that old emotional resonance drafting through again. Upon reminiscing I suppose it’s Franny and Zooey that touched me the deepest of Salinger’s writings, but it’s Holden that I feel I know the best, and it’s Holden’s hunter’s cap that haunts me as a lasting symbol of American literature as few others do. At once evocative of the hunt—of searching—and an insulation against the world, Holden’s defining sartorial article works nicely as a metaphor to be mined by high school English students in sophomore term papers year after year. But as nexus between the “very corny” trappings of existence and the way we occasionally can’t help but fall for them ourselves, it also serves as a perfect reflection of the place that beat-up edition of Catcher has staked out on our bookshelves.

As such, the hat’s ubiquity on the heads of those (not so-)subtly bent on announcing their allegiance to Holden’s worldview and the novel in general is not surprising. Then again, its function as the crown atop the head of the king of spotting phonies has made it a potentially dangerous accessory: does one by wearing similar headgear not potentially run the risk of slipping from someone adorning the mantle of sincerity to becoming the very sort phony the wearer means to define himself against? What made the hat work for Holden was just that he made it his own. The problem of wearing Holden’s hat is the problem of loving Salinger’s books: how to stake claim to something so universally popular?

I suspect there must be something of that conundrum that compelled Salinger to take refuge from the world as a recluse. Politicians who successfully campaign as “outsiders” find themselves upon election in the position opposite the one defining their candidacies. Similarly, it must be difficult for an author taking aim at a society seemingly littered with phonies to hear the entire society echo back: yes, we know, and we hate that too. If we’re all Holden’s, who is Holden? Is Holden the exception—or did Salinger hit upon the rule?

At the end of Catcher, Holden hands off his hat to his sister, an act generally understood as marking the end of Holden’s rite of passage into adulthoof. Holden can’t stave off the end of innocence that comes with it; he cannot be the catcher in the rye. All he can do is pass along the symbol of that desire to the next generation of kids.

The incessant interest in Salinger is telling. Ultimately, he accomplished a dangerous feat, shining a light on a little crack in the pavement and discovering universal appeal. As such, the novel (like the hat) can’t help but run the risk of mutating from statement to cliché, from devolving from a particular identifier to a general qualifier. Would Holden have felt any better if he suspected the world was full of similarly disaffected loners, of so many professing to know just what he was talking about, so many who have knowingly donned red hunter’s caps over the last 60 years? Would he count Salinger’s mourners, as The Onion does, as so many phonies? One can only guess. Is it a coincidence that while Holden gave his protective cap up, Salinger put one on, so to speak, and kept it there–flaps down–for nearly 60 years, shutting himself in and even rejecting all fan mail.

For one, I’ve been a bit surprised not to see a windfall of hunter’s caps on the streets of New York following Salinger’s death (Am I wrong? Have you spotted any?), or at least the creation of a Facebook app offering the ability to digitally place one on folks’ heads in their profile photos. Perhaps the possibility of coming off like a phony is preventing such things—or perhaps there’s the latent acknowledgment that imitation, in this case, is not the sincerest form of flattery. Either it’s a goddam shame that we care so much about looking like phonies, or it’s an honor to Salinger’s memory that we’re tipping our caps by not wearing them.

Ah, the complications of identity, art, and style! No wonder Salinger stayed indoors with his books and and writing for company. As for all those rumors of a man going batshit and drinking his own urine, I prefer to think of him in his home, which was likely dusty, cold and silent, itself a sort of attic. And there by the window he sits at his typewriter, wearing a red hunter’s cap, refusing to take it off, those last lines of Catcher floating through his head: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

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