Was writing Holden a mistake?

Like many readers, I think about the fictional Holden Caulfield with fondness. When I first read The Catcher in the Rye I was about 12, which may explain why I got through the entire book thinking that Phoebe's name was pronounced phobe.

I have since read the novel several times, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. About 10 years ago, Jonathan Yardley, a book critic for The Washington Post, questioned the enduring fascination with Holden, calling him "callow" and "self-pitying." J.D. Salinger, Yardley went on, had "a tin ear."

I remember feeling the same way at some point. But Holden, his wool cap and his phony-this, phony-that still crack me up.

A new documentary has me revisiting the 1951 novel yet again. According to Shane Salerno's American Masters film, Salinger, the reclusive novelist was a train wreck of a guy, cruel to his family and others around him, his writings used by deranged individuals, most notably Mark David Chapman, to destroy yet more lives. Salinger himself said that "writing Holden was a mistake."

If you'd like to learn more about the writer, his life and the paradoxes his work presents, check out these links:

An interview with filmmaker Shane Salerno

  • Salerno spent 10 years working on Salinger. Why?

An educator's guide to Salinger's works

  • Includes a poster, activities for students, and an overview of the fictional Caulfield and Glass families

Film excerpt: Salinger's last story in Cosmopolitan

  • Editor, novelist, and playwright A.E. Hotchner talks about Salinger's "Blue Melody," published in 1948. Not a word of the story could be changed, Salinger warned. "Either as is or not at all."

More Holden to come

  • It was announced last fall that five new Salinger works are due out between 2015 and 2020, including The Last and Best of the Peter Pans, a short story that features, yes, Holden Caulfield. And it does sound ominous.

We're left to wonder: Would the world have been better off if Salinger had never picked up a pen?