Holden Caulfield in Winter Manhattan

NY in winter

by Jennifer Ciotta,

Holden Caulfield generates so much inspirational buzz, he needs no introduction.  This immortal character, star of The Catcher in the Rye written by J.D. Salinger, continues to flourish among high school students across the country.

Every year adolescents discover the cynicism and intelligence of Holden, a large feat from once being one of the most banned books in the United States.  The Catcher in the Rye has come a long way from being dismissed for its 252 goddamns.  Instead, it encompasses a new spirit, one of literary genius, but also of place.  Throughout the book, a reader will begin to notice that Caulfield moves swiftly throughout New York City, specifically in and around Central Park while relating memories of his sister Phoebe and his deceased brother Allie.

It was Salinger who helped set the tone for historic New York during the late 1940s to early 1950s, a difficult time in American history, falling right after World War II and pushing forward with conservative morals and postwar confusion. However, Salinger did not mention these political aspects, instead leaving his story to Holden and his daily and nightly jaunts around Manhattan, mostly Uptown.

Winter serves a magical time in New York City, famous for the windows at Macy’s, which actually dated back to even Holden’s time, as he quickly mentions in the book. Certain things have changed a little, shaping a new winter season in the Big Apple.  For instance, as Holden passes outside of Grand Central, he remarks on the “Salvation Army babes” who collect for the poor.  Today, such a sight would be impossible, since the Salvation Army collectors are usually bellowing men festooned with Santa Claus hats, yet still stationed outside of Grand Central. Holden stows his bag for the night in Grand Central, entrances located at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue.

Grand Central comprises the beauty of architectural New York, giving way to the majestic hall where the main clock watches passengers run to and fro. As a commuter  from Brooklyn into Midtown, I am fully intertwined in the hustle and bustle of rush hour every Monday through Friday, yet for a tourist, I always think it might be nice to sit and watch the whole spectacle, probably something Holden did back in his day.

Holden focuses much of his time in Central Park, a place which seems to conjure up memories of his past and allow the reader to comprehend why he ends up in a mental hospital at the end of the novel.  A major concern of Holden’s, which he repeats thoroughly and in strange circumstances throughout the book, is where the lagoon ducks go for the winter in Central Park South.  He discusses this curiosity with a taxi driver, much to the driver’s annoyance. He wonders if the ducks fly south or a caretaker comes in and gathers the little creatures. This theme of protecting the innocent is paramount in Salinger’s novel, thus Holden’s quest is a noble one.

Today, when I walk through Central Park, only a short distance by subway from my job, I noticed that the animals are gone, only a frozen mass of water stands still. The lush greenery of the Park in the summer, the flowers, have given way to harsh, leafless trees and solid earth.  Yet Central Park seems to have the spirit which Holden found in his memories, as I recalled jogging around with gloves and a scarf many years before, and staying with friend, whom today I’ve lost touch with.  The sadness of winter can be overwhelming, a time for hibernating and contemplating, and Holden uses the Park as his memory board as I do today.

Central Park also holds joyous times for Holden as he recounts skating with his siblings on Wollman Rink at 59th Street and 6th Avenue. Finding the rink can be tricky for a tourist, since there is no direct street or parking. Instead there is a small sign at the 59th Street entrance that demands a trek up a small hill where the grandiose rink spans the panorama.

As I casually walk up to the rink, I decide that this cannot be much different than Holden’s era, except for the digital cameras swinging from parental wrists, and cell phones ringing hip-hop ballads. It is the winter tourist hotspot, as I am sure it was in Holden’s day – in fact, a long line, even in the middle of a January Thursday afternoon, stands in front of me. Thus I do not skate, but I do smile at the little ones who teeter unpretentiously on their silver blades, bringing to my mind the thought of Holden gliding paternally across the ice with Allie and Phoebe.

Directly across the Park is the Museum of Natural History located at 81st Street and 8th Avenue (also known as Central Park West).  Holden says this of his childhood recollection of visiting the Museum:

I get very happy when I think about it.  Even now.

I first discovered the Museum when I was sixteen years old, on a field trip for my high school anthropology class.  Today, the great whale looms over my head, along with children lying under it.  The dinosaur room remains as I remember it, while a giant crab sparks a debate of what exactly is that hideous thing?  As Holden recites in the later half of the book, everything stays the same at the Museum, and that is what he loves most about it.  He can preserve these memories, and visit them later, virtually untouched. Conversely, Holden did not enter the Museum in the novel – he cannot bring himself to go inside.

Instead, he saunters in front of the building and hails a cab on icy Central Park West, off to meet a girl named Sally for a movie date, off to another part of the city.

Originally Published in 2006

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