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BlogNovember-December, 2011
Football in American Literature, Part One

One of my favorite things about The Catcher in the Rye is how recent it is. That may sound crazy, considering the book was published in 1951. But there are details in Holden Caulfield's life that still resonate. And they are the sort of details you are unlikely to find in American novels prior to World War II.

One of these details is the role of football. There are numerous football references in the book's opening chapter, all of which abet Holden's portrait of Pencey Prep -- simultaneously depicting Pencey as an elite private academy for rich kids...and also, in its own way, an American school just like the one you or I attended. All this, decades before Friday Night Lights:

"Anyway, it was the Saturday of the football game with Saxon Hall. The game with Saxon Hall was supposed to be a very big deal around Pencey. It was the last game of the year, and you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn't win. I remember around three o'clock that afternoon I was standing way the hell up on top of Thomsen Hill, right next to this crazy cannon that was in the Revolutionary War and all. You could see the whole field from there, and you could see the two teams bashing each other all over the place" (2).

It's as if to say: this is what our Founding Fathers fought for? And if you think the "Revolutionary War" reference is just a tossed-off expression from Holden's sarcastic mouth -- and not something planted there by Salinger -- think again. There's a second linkage between the prep school and the Fathers, when Holden tells Phoebe "that all the jerks that graduated from Pencey around 1776 come back and walk all over the place, with their wives and children and everybody" (168). And: Holden is not attending the game. It's an early indication that our narrator is not part of the swarming masses. He stands apart, he watches from on high. He's not like all the rest. 

Then there's Holden's experience playing football, also in the opening chapter. I must confess, I think of this scene almost everyday, because it reminds me of all those pockets of free time you have when you are young and jobless:

"I suddenly remembered this time, in around October, that I and Robert Tichener and Paul Campbell were chucking a football around, in front of the academic building. They were nice guys, especially Tichener. It was just before dinner and it was getting pretty dark out, but we kept chucking the ball around anyway. It kept getting darker and darker, and we could hardly see the ball any more, but we didn't want to stop doing what we were doing. Finally we had to" (5).

Salinger's title is a reference to Holden's misremembering a line from a Robert Burns poem. Speaking to Phoebe, Holden describes a vision of himself as a youth-savior, "standing on the edge of some crazy cliff," preventing "thousands of little kids" from going over the edge "if they're running and they don't look where they're going" (173). But if you read the opening chapter of Catcher carefully, you'll capture the gist of Holden's "catcher in the rye" sentiment long before he has this conversation with Phoebe. It's the same sentiment he expresses with Tichener and Campbell, about trying to prolong play time and forestall the duties of adulthood: "We didn't want to stop doing what we were doing. Finally we had to."

Ilan Mochari is the author of the novel Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press, 2012). His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Keyhole, Stymie, Ruthie's Club and Oysters & Chocolate.
In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

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Ilan Mochari