If there is one major takeaway from watching political campaigns it is this: politicians are phonies. It drives just about everyone crazy, including many in the media who have been covering this circus for years. Consequently, this deplorable situation has created legions of phony-haters. In the American literary canon, the poster boy for phony-haters is none other than Holden Caulfield from J. D. Salinger’s most famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye. The novel is filled with Holden’s unsparing tirades against all kinds of phonies — he uses the word “phony” 44 times. Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear what Caulfield thought of the dozens of people, mostly career politicians, who were running for president in 2016? Most likely, that colorful rant would fill an entire book.
In the aftermath of the recent election, when an overwhelming majority of disgruntled and frustrated Americans voted for one phony over another, we can better appreciate Caulfield’s visceral disdain for phonies, evidenced in the following quotes:
At the end of the first act we went out with all the other jerks for a cigarette. What a deal that was. You never saw so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could hear and know how sharp they were. Some dopey movie actor was standing near us, having a cigarette…. He was with some gorgeous blonde, and the two of them were trying to be very blasé and all, like as if he didn’t even know people were looking at him. Modest as hell. I got a big bang out of it.
“Old Selma Thurmer — she was the headmaster’s daughter — showed up at the games quite often, but she wasn’t exactly the type that drove you mad with desire. She was a pretty nice girl, though. I sat next to her once in the bus from Agerstown and we sort of struck up a conversation. I liked her. She 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, but you felt sort of sorry for her. What I liked about her, 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.”
“One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window. For instance, they had this headmaster, Mr. Haas, that was the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life. Ten times worse than old Thurmer. On Sundays, for instance, old Haas went around shaking hands with everybody’s parents when they drove up to school. He’d be charming as hell and all. Except if some boy had little old funny-looking parents. You should’ve seen the way he did with my roommate’s parents. I mean if a boy’s mother was sort of fat or corny-looking or something, and if somebody’s father was one of those guys that wear those suits with very big shoulders and corny black-and-white shoes, then old Haas would just shake hands with them and give them a phony smile and then he’d go talk, for maybe a half an hour, with somebody else’s parents. I can’t stand that stuff. It drives me crazy. It makes me so depressed I go crazy. I hated that goddam Elkton Hills.”
“He started telling us how he was never ashamed, when he was in some kind of trouble or something, to get right down on his knees and pray to God. He told us we should always pray to God — talk to Him and all — whenever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving in his car. That killed me. I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs.”
“Lawyers are all right, I guess — but it doesn’t appeal to me,” I said. “I mean they’re all right if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t.”
“You ought to go to a boys’ school sometime. Try it sometime,” I said. “It’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques.”
“You remember I said before that Ackley was a slob in his personal habits? Well, so was Stradlater, but in a different way. Stradlater was more of a secret slob. He always looked all right, Stradlater, but for instance, you should’ve seen the razor he shaved himself with. It was always rusty as hell and full of lather and hairs and crap. He never cleaned it or anything. He always looked good when he was finished fixing himself up, but he was a secret slob anyway, if you knew him the way I did.”
“Then all of a sudden, she saw some jerk she knew on the other side of the lobby. Some guy in one of those very dark gray flannel suits and one of those checkered vests. Strictly Ivy League. Big deal… Finally, though, the jerk noticed her and came over and said hello. You should’ve seen the way they said hello. You’d have thought they hadn’t seen each other in twenty years… The funny part was, they probably met each other just once, at some phony party.”
“Oh, how lovely! Perhaps you know my son, then, Ernest Morrow? He goes to Pencey.”
“Yes, I do. He’s in my class.”
Her son was doubtless the biggest bastard that ever went to Pencey, in the whole crumby history of the school. He was always going down the corridor, after he’d had a shower, snapping his soggy old wet towel at people’s asses. That’s exactly the kind of a guy he was.
“Oh, how nice!” the lady said. But not corny. She was just nice and all. “I must tell Ernest we met,” she said. “May I ask your name, dear?”
“Rudolf Schmidt,” I told her. I didn’t feel like giving her my whole life history. Rudolf Schmidt was the name of the janitor of our dorm.
For further reading: The Best Books on J.D. Salinger
The Most Influential People Who Never Lived
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books That Shaped America
The Books that Influence Us
What to Read Next
Banned Books that Shaped America
For further reading: The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
“Raise High the Barriers, Censors” by Edward Corbett in America, the National Catholic Weekly Review (January 7, 1961)