“Salinger transforms Huck the frontier fugitive into Holden the prep-school dropout: both boys’ famously provocative colloquial voices embody their quests for American freedom and authenticity.”—Richard Locke, Critical Children
In Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels, Richard Locke discusses many notable children from literature ranging from Oliver Twist to Lolita. One of the most memorable chapters in the book is J. D. Salinger’s Saintly Dropout: Holden Caulfield.
Locke opens by describing how Caulfield encompasses some of the characteristics of other famous child characters:
Salinger’s most famous character, sixteen-year-old Holden, is a holy rebel who combines elements of Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger, Huckleberry Finn and Peter Pan. Like Oliver, Holden can be said to represent “the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last.” Like the Artful Dodger, he is a quick-tongued urban trickster. Like Peter Pan, he mocks his own conventional (and comfortably affluent) society and wants to never grow up. But his most celebrated ancestor is Huckleberry Finn. Salinger transforms Huck the frontier fugitive into Holden the prep-school dropout: both boys’ famously provocative colloquial voices embody their quests for American freedom and authenticity.
Locke concludes by writing:
So at the end of the novel, Holden has become profoundly conservative and reconciled to his (privileged) place in the conventional order of things. He will not attempt to erase the scrawled “fuck you’s” that fill the world and that he thinks may eventually adorn his grave (like a curse on his mourners and the motto of his life). Holden’s narrative demonstrates his recovery, and the act of telling it has enlarged his sympathies. Through this social act of speech and literary art he has rejoined what was soon to be called “the family of man” and finds he “misses” everyone he has described, even “old Stradlater and Ackley” and that “goddam Maurice” (the pimp who slugged him), as well as dead Allie and the schoolboy who jumped out of the window and his own lousy childhood (277). Holden’s art links past and present, the living and dead.
Salinger portrays such aesthetic salvation as consubstantial with moral and psychological deliverance. All’s well that ends well: there is not a flicker of political or social concern. Women are a graceful, civilizing force, and brutal men can be defeated by sensitive but firmly heterosexual boys. Once again, a child will lead us. Holden is a conservative enforcer disguised as a teenage loudmouth. And for all its extraordinary flexibility, responsiveness, invention, and power, Holden’s justly famous verbal style never opens magic casements or ever threatens the reader. In the end—after all the comic patter and the lyric pathos—the worst thing that can happen to Holden is that “Daddy’s going to kill you”.