Salinger’s Concrete Universal


Value judgments are a lie
Find the patterns that apply
Squeeze out Hamlet, let it dry
Presto! Catcher in the Rye.

[A poem that circulated among Victoria College students in the 1980s.]

Salinger’s book is my favourite, a work that explained to me my feelings of alienation while growing up as a C.B.C. (Canadian Born Chinese) split between two worlds, Chinese and Canadian, and wanting to be accepted by both. Perhaps that’s one reason why early on I loved English Literature so much: it was a way to be accepted by the ascendant class in Toronto during the 1970s. How much more Canadian can I be if I studied the literature?

Too bad racists are philistines. But I digress.

Frye helped explain my love of The Catcher in the Rye: The Concrete Universal. By being so specific, the novel speaks universally, beyond the limits of its time and place and setting.

It is a work situated somewhere in phase 1 of Satire/Comedy, which may also explain the universal power of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Frye helped me see that the latter is the mythical opposite of Catcher, a full blown Quest Romance/phase 2 Satire. Both protagonists skip school. Both travel through a big city. Both have dates. Both have a kid sister integral to the resolution. The difference is in the power of the main character when confronted by society. Ferris is one with his society. Holden is not, until the very end — the last line, in fact. Those who say Catcher is a depressing book are guilty of a substantial misreading. It has saved me on several occasions.

Thank you J.D. Salinger.  And, as always, thank you Northrop Frye.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “Salinger’s Concrete Universal

  1. Russell Perkin

    Peter, an example of Salinger’s enormous influence and appeal is found in a book I just finished reading, Haruki Murakami’s _Norwegian Wood_, which has been described as a Japanese _Catcher in the Rye_. Murakami translated _Catcher_ into Japanese, and in _Norwegian Wood_ the narrator finds a friend in his university dorm because they both admire _The Great Gatsby_. His new friend tells him “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. That’s the world of hicks and slobs. Real people would be ashamed of themselves doing that. Haven’t you noticed, Watanabe? You and I are the only real ones in the dorm. The other guys are crap.”

  2. Peter StirFrye Yan

    Reader Response/Pragmatic Criticism

    Thanks Russell for the East meets West version of Catcher. I like the misanthropic tone the quotation captured, similar to Holden’s tiring of the world. Of course, critically the character is wrong with his pragmatic criticism based solely on the reader. Many readers read Blake before Frye. No one else could think of Blake like Frye…in fact, I am often told “if Frye was so great, then could he have written Finnegan’s Wake”. My reply: “Perhaps not. But if Joyce is so great, could he have written any of Fearful, Anatomy,Great Code or Words with Power? I think not.”


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *