Webster G. Tarpley
January 28, 2010
Today the Internet abounds with appreciations and essays on the life and work of a celebrated literary recluse J. D. Salinger, who just passed away in New Hampshire. There is one important aspect of Salinger’s work which most literary critics appear to have missed. Salinger attended northeastern prep schools during the 1930s, and wrote about his experiences, most notably in a short story which he submitted to the New Yorker in 1941. I thought of Salinger in 1991 when I was writing The Unauthorized Biography of George H. W. Bush. It occurred to me that some of the disjointed and cynical monologues delivered by the elder Bush in public sounded very much like the voice of Salinger’s antihero, Holden Caulfield. The following passage from my 1992 Bush biography sums up the case that a character based on the elder Bush actually appears in The Catcher in the Rye.
The leading feature of this … is Bush’s total lack of rigor; his personal idiom is incapable of expressing causality or precision. Already the subject-object relations are blurred, antecedents are a realm of anything goes, and verbal action has dwindled to insignificance. Underneath the avid and enthusiastic persona is a mind that is petulant, bored, and blase about everything that does not touch the interests of the ego. The result is an impression of overwhelming, undifferentiated banality. One is reminded of a narrative voice like the following:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father.”
The speaker here, Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, inhabited the world that also belonged to George Bush — the world of the northeast prep schools of the 1940s. Apart from the obvious parallels between George and Holden, there is the interesting question of whether Bush might have a closer relation to this literary personage. In the course of the errant Holden Caulfield’s time in New York City, he takes a girlfriend to a matinee theatre performance; during the intermission the girlfriend, named Sally, spots “some jerk she knew on the other side of the lobby. Some guy in one of those very dark grey flannel suits and one of those checkered vests. Strictly Ivy League. Big deal.” Holden recounts the later conversation between Sally and her friend:
“You should’ve seen him when old Sally asked him how he liked the play. He was the kind of a phony that have to give themselves room when they answer somebody’s question. He stepped back, and stepped right on the lady’s foot behind him. He probably broke every toe in her body. He said the play itself was no masterpiece, but that the Lunts, of course, were absolute angels. Angels. For Chrissake. Angels. That killed me. Then he and Sally started talking about a lot of people they both knew. It was the phoniest conversation you ever heard in your life.”
“The worst part was, the jerk had one of those very phony, Ivy League voices, one of those very tired, snobby voices. He sounded just like a girl. He didn’t hesitate to horn in on my date, the bastard. I even thought for a minute that he was going to get in the goddamn cab with us when the show was over, because he walked about two blocks with us, but he said he had to meet a bunch of phonies for cocktails, he said. I could see them all sitting around in some bar, with their goddamn checkered vests, criticizing shows and books and women in those tired, snobby voices. They kill me, those guys.”
Who was Sally’s friend? “His name was George something – I don’t even remember- and he went to Andover. Big, big deal.” Who was the “phony Andover bastard” who so exasperated Holden Caulfield? Can this be a very early cameo appearance of George Herbert Walker Bush? J.D. Salinger is not known for giving interviews, but George Bush, Big Man on the Andover campus, would have been a figure of some note under the clock in the Biltmore during the early 1940′s, which seems to be the epoch in which this episode is set.
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