Friday, January 29, 2010

Holden Caufield: A Singer at Heart

"You know that song 'If a body catch a body comin' through the rye'? I'd like — "

"It's 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye'!" old Phoebe said. "It's a poem. By Robert Burns."

"I know it's a poem by Robert Burns."

She was right, though. It is "If a body meet a body coming through the rye." I didn't know it then, though.

"I thought it was 'If a body catch a body,'" I said."
          Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye

Holden knew that ‘Coming through the rye’ is a song, even if he got the words wrong.

 It’s based on a Robert Burns poem, but it’s more likely he heard the song as a child, than that he read the poem.

I know it’s a song too. I have been able to sing it since I was 6 years old, when I received a Magnus Chord Organ for Christmas, complete with a Favorite Melodies for Magnus Chord Organ books. There are variations on the song, but this is the one the good Magnus Organ people printed:

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the rye;
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

Ev'ry Lassie has her laddie,
Nane, they say, hae I,
Yet all the lads they smile at me,
When comin' thro' the rye.

For Holden, the song made such an impression that he wanted to catch the body coming through the rye, which in his mind was at the edge of a cliff. And so was born a defining metaphor for several generations of readers, now warmly being remembered at the passing of the 91-year old Salinger.

For me, I didn’t know that “gin” in the song is Scottish for “if,” but these words and music are seared into my brain because I learned them so young, and I was good at getting the gist of all things verbal or literary.

This song is the only thing I have in common with Holden Caufield or his hermetic author, J.D. Salinger. I have no emotional connection to the novel Catcher in the Rye at all. We had the classic copy in the house, but I think a family friend bought it for my older brother. I know I read it somewhere in school, but it made no impression on me. Hardy’s The Return of the Native is the first novel I read in adolescence that rocked my world. From there I found Hemingway, and never looked back. The uber adolescent moment to bond with Holden had passed.

So I didn’t connect with Catcher the way so many literary types did, but I did years earlier connect deeply to my Magnus Organ. My father picked it out for me, the 670 Model, with three octaves of keys, and six major and six minor buttons. I played every one of the songs in the beginning book hundreds of times, learning the words to such timeless songs as “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “Oh Susanna,” “Home on the Range,”and many, many others. My love of these songs is part of what shielded me from some of the teenage years bleak alienation, which in turn is part of why no sparks with Holden for me.

Fast forward to the 1990s: I like the Fraiser homage to Salinger in the episode “A Crane’s Critique.” Robert Prosky plays ‘the reclusive author T. H. Houghton, who has only written one iconic novel.’ Martin Crane becomes friends with Houghton, and Niles and Frasier are beside themselves to impress the great American writer. He leaves a briefcase with his new manuscript in the apartment, and the Crane boys read it. When they critique it to him, Houghton realizes it’s completely derivative of Dante’s Inferno. He thanks them and destroys it. Now that’s a literary fantasy.

Salinger died on January 27, just two days after the worldwide annual celebration of Rabbie Burns’s birthday. Maybe they are now somewhere, singin’ together: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind . . . “


scribbler50 said...

Lovely post as usual, M.A., and unlike you "Catcher" did rock my world. But I have to say, it's been so long I want to read it again to see just why. I also (after reading Wolcott's take on the author in his blog) want to take on "Franny and Zooey" as well.

M.A.Peel said...

Thanks Hath. Here's a strange coincidence. I haven't thought about Hemingway in a while, but thinking about Catcher to write the post brought back how important his work is to me.

Then yesterday I had some time to kill and I popped into Barnes and Noble on 82 and Broadway and bought a book from the $2 table: a Hemingway appreciation by Jean Pierre Pustienne, organized around the bars Papa drank in! Now that's a good contribution to Hemingway scholarship.

scribbler50 said...

Not only is that a good contribution to Hemingway scholarship, interesting as hell to be sure, but yet another bit of magic like the Evelyn Waugh coincidence at your friend's wedding. I love when those things happen.
Enjoy your literary pub crawl.