J.D. Salinger is best known for The Catcher in the Rye, that 1951 classic tale of teenage angst. (Come on, admit it: You read it!) With an estimated 96% of American high schools still teaching this book as a part of their literature curriculum each year, the precocious curmudgeon Holden Caulfield is as close to a household name as any character in 20th century American literature.
Readers tend to have strong feelings about this brash, trash-talking teen, who spends most of his time lamenting the loss of authentic love and human kindness, which he believes has been supplanted by a middle class version of success unable to see past the dollar signs. But many may not remember his sensitivity – perhaps oversensitivity — to the beauty of the fair sex. Salinger once described his cynical protagonist as “not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it.” And it may come as a surprise to know that Holden, not known for his social graces, good manners, or acceptable etiquette, is chock-o-block full of advice when it comes to relationships with the woman.
His commentary on hand-holding alone is worth the price of the book. In Chapter 11, the normally dyspeptic Holden slips into a blind reverie about Jane Gallagher, the girl he believes he can truly love. “She was terrific to hold hands with,” he lets us know. “Most girls, if you hold hands with them, their… hand dies on you, or else they think they have to keep moving their hands all the time, as if they were afraid they'd bore you or something.” Holden’s tip: During a movie, start holding hands straightaway and don’t quit till the credits are finished rolling. And, unless your hand has fallen asleep on you, don’t change the position or make a big deal out of the fact that you’re holding hands. “You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not,” Holden explains. “All you knew was, you were happy. You really were.”
In a curmudgeon’s world, however, most people don’t rate as high as a Jane Gallagher. Plenty of people peeve Holden Caulfield – he finds “fakes” and “phonies” lurking around every corner – but, like many well-meaning gents, he’s got his own personal weaknesses. “That's the thing about girls,” he explains in Chapter 10. “Every time they do something pretty, even if they're not much to look at, or even if they're sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are.” So, there you are, ladies. Holden’s tip number two: “Do something pretty” – anything, and you’ve got your man hook, line, and sinker. “Girls…. They can drive you crazy. They really can,” he confirms, in case you gents didn’t know.
Now, speaking of fakes and phonies, these superficial creatures are above all else guilty of the cardinal sin in Holden Caulfield’s universe: “Giving out a lot of horse manure.” Despite the fact that Selma Thurmer, the headmaster's daughter at Agerston, “had a big nose and her nails were all bitten down and bleedy-looking and she had on those damn falsies that point all over the place,” Holden recognizes the one redeeming quality that overshadows even a gal’s bitten-down nails. “What I liked about her,” he says, “she didn't give you a lot of horse manure about what a great guy her father was. She probably knew what a phony slob he was.” Holden’s tip number three in a nutshell: Be honest. Don’t exaggerate. In other words, never give out a lot of horse manure. It’s not the stuff that builds fruitful, lasting relationships.
Some pieces of advice are so obvious, you’d think they wouldn’t even need to be uttered. That doesn’t keep Holden from expostulating in Chapter 9 on the importance of respect for the face: “I think if you don't really like a girl, you shouldn't horse around with her at all, and if you do like her, then you're supposed to like her face, and if you like her face, you ought to be careful about doing crumby stuff to it, like squirting water all over it.” Thus, Holden’s tip number four: Don’t do crumby stuff to the face of someone you really like.
Let’s move now from the face to the neck. Holden admits to liking it, but his higher nature knows it’s just best to avoid altogether – “passionate necking,” that is, and especially if you’re a gal. “I mean most girls are so dumb and all,” he says. “After you neck them for a while, you can really watch them losing their brains. You take a girl when she really gets passionate, she just hasn't any brains.” Holden’s tip number five: Unless you’re not worried about losing your brains, it is best to avoid necking.
It is said that punctuality is the politeness of princes, and there’s probably plenty of truth to that. Punctuality is all about being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there. It’s a pretty simple concept, but Holden is quick to note one exception: “If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she's late? Nobody.” Holden’s tip number 6: Look swell and you needn’t worry so much about punctuality. When in doubt, be on time.
And finally, this seventh tip is perhaps less straightforward than the others, but it makes you think. “It's funny,” Holden says in Chapter 21, “all you have to do is say something nobody understands and they'll do practically anything you want them to.” Do you get the feeling that Holden is cynical and sarcastic at times? Yes, that’s Holden Caulfield all over. God love him. Nevertheless, it couldn’t hurt (could it?) to take this piece of advice – at least once.
Oh, and there’s one more piece of advice that ought to be included here, but this one isn’t from Holden, but given to him — from Sally Hayes. In Chapter 17, she say, “"Promise me you'll let your hair grow. Crew cuts are getting corny.” Ouch! Well, considering The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, a few years before crew cuts really came into style, it seems Sally was ahead of the curve by a decade. And, really, this advice might still be appropriate today as fashionistas hint that, well, crew cuts are getting corny.
Obviously, you’re meant to take Holden’s tips as tongue-in-cheek offerings, but you’ll have to admit there’s at least a germ of wisdom to be found in each.