Virginia Euwer Wolff: The Guys’ Clubhouse

Catcher in the RyeI didn’t even ask why I was turn­ing into Hold­en Caulfield. I was fif­teen, a brochure girl for post­war inno­cence. And I was a farm kid, three thou­sand miles away from Holden’s Man­hat­tan; I took vio­lin lessons, rode my bike through orchards, mem­o­rized social stud­ies facts, picked straw­ber­ries to make mon­ey, earned Camp Fire Girl hon­or beads. I also sought the right bras, the right pim­ple med­i­cine, the boys most like­ly to alarm my family.

The Catch­er in the Rye came into my life at a rum­mage sale, and I read it in one evening. With­in the next few days, I heard myself recit­ing whole para­graphs from mem­o­ry, and in doing so I began to notice that I was dri­ving near­ly every­one away. My usu­al­ly affec­tion­ate fam­i­ly loathed Hold­en and me enough to shoot scorn­ful looks over to our side of the din­ner table and for­get to pass us the pota­toes. It went on for months.

The gen­der dif­fer­ence didn’t occur to me.

Why not? I now ask myself. Didn’t it seem real­ly, real­ly, real­ly odd that I was this boy who was hang­ing Sunny’s sad green dress on a hang­er in a New York hotel room? I don’t think I gave it a thought.

I look back on whom I was choos­ing to be: an aca­d­e­m­ic fail­ure who had done near­ly every­thing wrong that he’d been asked to do right; a boy who was mak­ing his own jour­ney into the under­world and tak­ing metic­u­lous note of its sin­is­ter mien; a nar­ra­tor whose flair for vul­gar­i­ty was almost choral and who was inti­mate­ly attuned to the sanc­ti­ty of life; a soli­tary wan­der­er who, like many teenagers, was just learn­ing how to take the full mea­sure of his undis­ci­plined tem­pera­ment; a pro­tag­o­nist who want­ed to save falling chil­dren and who was saved by his lit­tle sis­ter; a bor­row­er and a lender who was teach­ing me about respons­es to defile­ment, a les­son I would con­tin­ue to need as the belea­guered twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry stum­bled forward.

Some­how I’ve got­ten through the inter­ven­ing years with­out ever exam­in­ing whether or not I was uncon­scious­ly seek­ing a gen­der change (no, I was not), whether or not I had penis envy, whether or not I want­ed to try on boy­hood. But as I ask these ques­tions even now, it seems that it was a lit­er­ary iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of con­ve­nience. Get­ting to be Hold­en let me use his brain, which was so much more inter­est­ing than mine. When I was Hold­en, I had form, shape, demeanor. He gave me some­one to be.

I had loved liv­ing with Bet­sy and Tacy, had enjoyed bustling around solv­ing mys­ter­ies with Nan­cy Drew, but I hadn’t become them. They were book friends, and they didn’t give my moth­er the migraines that my immer­sion in Holden’s life gave her.

What I do know at this dis­tance: Hold­en was teach­ing me about struc­ture and nar­ra­tion, about the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, the turn-on-a-dime bias inher­ent in fic­tion. I had heard cer­tain kinds of sto­ry­telling all my life. His kind was new, allur­ing in its imper­ti­nence, the per­fect vehi­cle for me to use as an armored car in an ado­les­cence that real­ly didn’t need one. And there was a poignant grav­i­ty to Hold­en that has nev­er left me. Could I have guessed that the mere men­tion of his name could still upset peo­ple, all these decades lat­er? Not a bit.

As a grownup read­er I love the sweet agony of becom­ing Jane Eyre, Claris­sa Dal­loway, Natal­ie Babbitt’s Win­nie Fos­ter, and some of Alice Munro’s exquis­ite­ly sculpt­ed char­ac­ters. But I think my ear­ly sub­ver­sive part­ner­ship with Hold­en has also made it pos­si­ble for me to come clos­er to becom­ing David Cop­per­field, Jer­ry Renault, Jesse Aarons, Will Par­ry, King Lear, and my favorite, Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich Bash­machkin. Hold­en let me sneak briefly into the guys’ club­house, and I’ll always be grateful.

[This arti­cle first appeared in The Horn Book in 2007. It is repub­lished here with the author’s permission.]

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David LaRochelle
5 years ago

Thank good­ness for books that allow us to be so many dif­fer­ent peo­ple. A won­der­ful arti­cle, Virginia.

Virginia Euwer Wolff
Reply to  David LaRochelle
5 years ago

Gosh, thank you, David. And the books that take us into them so ear­ly in our lives set the bar very, very high, don’t they? May we all keep read­ing as if our lives depend­ed on it in these strained times.