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Walking in Holden Caulfield's footsteps through Manhattan

Nearly 60 years after the publication of 'The Catcher in the Rye' you can still see much of the New York that he saw.

April 24, 2010|By David L. Ulin
  • The pond at the south end is an object of fascination for J.D. Salinger's narrator, who wonders what becomes of the ducks when it ices over.
The pond at the south end is an object of fascination for J.D. Salinger's… (Jennifer S. Altman )

Reporting from New York — Holden Caulfield was a flâneur. That's not generally how we think of him, this archetype of adolescent alienation, this detester of phonies, this poor little lost boy whose voice — by turns knowing, childlike, cynical and bereft — drives J.D. Salinger's iconic 1951 novel, "The Catcher in the Rye." Yet, from the moment, about a quarter of the way through the book, he arrives by train at Manhattan's now-demolished original Pennsylvania Station building, he is our guide on one of the 20th century's great literary walking tours.

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It's a Saturday night in December 1950, a few days before the start of winter break, and Holden has just been expelled from boarding school again. His plan, if he could be said to have one, is to hole up in a hotel for a few days before returning to his parents' apartment on the Upper East Side. This shouldn't be a problem: He has some cash, and he knows the city, having lived here all his life. Holden, though, is 16, lost emotionally and physically, and as his world unravels during the next 48 hours, mostly what he does is walk.

This kind of foot-level interaction with the city begins before Holden ever gets to Manhattan, when he is saying his goodbyes at Pencey Prep. Visiting with a teacher, Old Spencer, he starts to think about the lagoon at the south end of Central Park. "I was wondering," he tells us, "if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away."

In early March, not much more than a month after Salinger's death on Jan. 27 at age 91, I stood at the edge of the still icy lagoon and asked myself these very questions as I watched a cluster of ducks among the reeds. Had they just returned, I wondered, or had they spent the winter elsewhere? This, it turns out, is among the novel's legacies; according to a 2001 New York Times piece, the Department of Parks and Recreation gets several letters and phone calls about the ducks each year.

Here, we see the enduring quality of this novel, which has sold about 65 million copies since it first appeared. For all that readers identify with Holden's teenage anguish, equally compelling is the way his wanderings bring New York to life. The city is a character in the book, defined by a kind of ongoing instability, in which the only constant is change.

Holden reflects on this while walking through Central Park to the Museum of Natural History. "The best thing … in that museum," he observes, "was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you."

I remember those exhibits also, remember staring at them a hundred thousand times myself. This, in fact, was one of the first attractions of the novel, that the life it described, Holden's life, was in many ways like my own. I, too, was raised on the Upper East Side and spent time in the places he describes. Like Holden, I was drawn by the stillness of the Museum of Natural History, the idea that it would always be the same.

The irony is that 60 years later, the museum has changed. Many of Holden's favorite displays have been removed or refurbished, including the so-called Great Canoe, which has been emptied of the 20 Native Americans he so admired, "some of them paddling, some of them just standing around looking tough."

And yet, outside those exhibition halls, we find another irony: The city is not so very different from the New York he describes. To take a walk in Holden's footsteps is to appreciate the consistency of the place.

You can walk Holden's Manhattan in one long afternoon, starting at Penn Station (or perhaps I should say the new Penn Station) and working your way north up Broadway through the theater district to the park. From there, you can check on the ducks in the lagoon, then wander over to the museums, before heading south, past the Central Park Zoo, and down through midtown to Grand Central Station. There are a few hidden landmarks, but for the most part, it's a city saunter, New York as New Yorkers know it, an insider's take on the streets.

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