On First Looking into Chapman's Holden: Speculations on a MurderPrint
By Daniel Stashower
January 30, 2010
Mark David Chapman, the young assassin, was carrying two things with him when he shot and killed John Lennon on the steps of the Dakota apartments in Manhattan: a pistol and a paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye. The function of the pistol was obvious. Less obvious was the function of J. D. Salinger’s novel. Yet the book, it seems fair to say, must have had some special significance to Mark Chapman. Any attempt to uncover its significance is, in the nature of the case, highly speculative. Yet some aspects of The Catcher in the Rye, set beside Mark Chapman’s murder of John Lennon, seems so suggestive that not to speculate upon the connections between the two seems a temptation impossible to forgo.
J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951. Like the Beatles, whose rise to fame came about roughly thirteen years later, the novel’s adolescent hero, Holden Caulfield, became a spokesman for a generation of rebellious, supposedly much-misunderstood youth. An oversimplified yet functional reading of the Salinger novel might conclude that all that the book advocates would fall under the heading of “innocence” and all that it condemns falls under that of “phoniness.” Holden Caulfield, during his somewhat aimless ramble through New York, feels overwhelmed by the phoniness he finds all around him. He struggles to preserve his own tenuous hold on youthful innocence–or, as he sometimes puts it, “niceness”–and despairs when he finds that innocence lost or threatened in the young people around him.
At his trial, Mark Chapman read what is perhaps The Catcher in the Rye’s most famous passage:
I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around–nobody big, I mean–except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff–I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.
While scarcely as succinct as John Wilkes Booth’s “Sic semper tyrannus,” or as compelling as Brutus’s “Romans, countrymen, and lovers,” the above passage was Chapman’s sole attempt to justify the murder of John Lennon. It ought to be examined for anything in it that might have led Chapman from Salinger’s rye fields to the Dakota apartments.
Probably no one will object too strenuously to the notion that Mark Chapman identified himself rather heavily with Holden Caulfield. Chapman would, after all, be only one of millions who felt that Salinger’s book was written especially for him, that it addressed itself to his problems and, in the way that certain books do, eased his pain. If Chapman identified with Holden, what sort of view of the world would accompany the identification? The Catcher in the Rye is a book almost wholly concerned with the preservation of innocence. When Holden speaks of “coming out from somewhere” to catch the children, he hopes to save them from becoming the adult “phonies” of the kind he has been encountering in New York. He doesn’t want the children to grow up into people who will “talk about how many miles their goddam cars get to the gallon.” If Chapman also saw himself as a protector of innocence, why was he inspired to shoot Lennon? Here is a question of the kind Holden himself might have called “a real bastard.”
Two possibilities come to mind: either Mark Chapman saw John Lennon as a corruptor of innocence, or he saw him as an innocent about to be corrupted. If Chapman imagined that Lennon was a threat to the innocence of youth, he certainly took his time in doing anything about it. After all, the man who in his music sang the joys of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and later posed nude on album covers while exhorting listeners to “open their thighs,” was not exactly what one would call a Samaritan. But Lennon’s last album, “Double Fantasy,” was, by contrast, a Girl Scout manual. This album, which came after a silence of six years, dealt largely with the joys of home life and fatherhood. There was little in the album’s songs that could he considered threatening; and the interviews that Lennon gave to promote it showed that he had settled into a comfortable, somewhat embourgeoisified life of baking bread and clipping coupons. Surely, this John Lennon was not the sort of person likely to threaten the innocence of children or of anyone else.
It is more likely, then, that Chapman saw Lennon as an innocent who was himself about to be corrupted. Some problems arise here, but the idea becomes at least plausible if considered in tandem with The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield provides some useful standards by which to judge innocence. His older brother, D. B., is the novel’s clearest example of innocence gone bad. D. B., it will be recalled, was apparently a writer of great promise who “sold out” and began to “prostitute himself” in Hollywood by writing cheap movie scripts. Commercial success at the expense of artistic integrity is, in The Catcher in the Rye, the worst expression of phoniness. Throughout the novel Holden despairs that his once-noble brother has fallen.
This model of the fallen artist is easily applicable to the world of Mark Chapman. As a teenager, he idolized the Beatles, and a large part of the charm of the Beatles lay in their absolute unwillingness to compromise their integrity for the sake of commercial gain, as Holden’s brother D. B. had. As it happens, the Beatles made fabulous sums of money anyway, but they often risked both their fortune and their popularity in unorthodox creative ventures. Sometimes, as with the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” they succeeded in spite of their heterodoxy. Other times, as with their disastrous merchandising firm Apple Corps., they failed. But they always preserved their dedication to their fans and their art, which made them easily the world’s most exciting rock band, while other bands clung to tested, profitable, and secondhand formulas. When the Beatles disbanded in 1970, their fans–including, one imagines, Mark Chapman–watched with interest to see what the individual members would do. Could any of the four men who had formed the Beatles achieve anything like a similar success on his own? Ringo Starr and George Harrison pursued fairly steady and largely uninteresting solo careers. Paul McCartney and John Lennon, divided by the stresses that had disrupted the Beatles, took off in two wildly divergent directions. Salinger himself couldn’t have wished for two characters whose careers more clearly defined the two sides of The Catcher in the Rye dilemma.
James Paul McCartney, as almost everyone who once cared for the Beatles is aware, became the most successful male pop artist the world has ever known, but in the process he completely alienated his former fans. The man who had written such songs as “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” and “Yesterday” now churned out material that was designed, almost scientifically, to sell. From a purely commercial standpoint, McCartney was several times more successful than the Beatles ever were, but he had, like Holden’s older brother, clearly sold out in producing obviously commercial music. If Chapman held to the definitions of “phoney” and “nice” as outlined by J. D. Salinger, Paul McCartney had become a phoney.
Turn now to John Lennon. Lennon’s solo career was easily the most erratic of the four former Beatles. He released a series of albums that were alternately brilliant and peculiar, sometimes both, and then he dropped out of sight. “Dropped out of sight” actually means that he stopped recording and dedicated six years to raising his son, Sean, while his wife, Yoko, managed their business affairs and sold holstein cows for enormous sums. While McCartney was so much in the news that even his toes were once photographed for Time, John Lennon–and all his various parts–were hidden from sight. No one has ever made much sense out of Lennon’s post-BeatIe years, but one thing is certain: in the code of rock music, he preserved his Beatle integrity. He was not a phoney. Even his artistic failures were dignified, and his self-imposed exile did nothing to damage but rather strengthened the claim of some music critics that Lennon was, after Elvis Presley, the “king of rock.”
Lennon’s exile suggests an interesting and possibly illuminating parallel to The Catcher in the Rye as it might have been interpreted by Mark Chapman. Possibly America’s most famous recluse is J. D. Salinger. For more than twenty years Salinger has isolated himself in his bunker-like retreat in New Hampshire. Like Lennon, Salinger has preserved the mystique that surrounds his early work, and he has accomplished this simply by removing himself from society. This isolation has done nothing to damage but rather has strengthened the claim of some literary critics that Salinger is one of the more important American writers in the postwar era.
Salinger’s retreat from society is anticipated in The Catcher in the Rye. On a date with the pretty but vapid Sally Hayes, Holden suddenly asks:
How would you like to get the hell out or here? Here’s my idea. I know this guy . . . we can borrow his car for a couple of weeks. What we could do is, tomorrow morning we could drive up to Massachusetts and Vermont, and all around there, see. It’s beautiful as hell up there . . . . I have about a hundred and eighty bucks . . . we’ll stay in these cabin camps and stuff . . .
Holden’s plan is, obviously, unrealistic, a fact that, in the novel, Sally Hayes belabors at somewhat tedious length. But the desire to “get the hell out of here,” which Holden expresses several times, is entirely consistent with the uncompromising line Holden draws between “nice” and “phoney,” and his fantastical if winning desire to become a “catcher in the rye.” “There were goddam phonies coming in the windows,” Holden complains at one point. Thus overwhelmed, the logical recourse is escape. Salinger’s own decision “to get the hell out of here” must mark one of the rare cases in literature in which an author has taken his character’s advice.
Though one can hardly call holing up in the Dakota “getting the hell out of here,” John Lennon did follow a course roughly like the one outlined by Holden. He, too, “got the hell out.” If Chapman shared the views of Holden Caulfield, then the chances are fairly good that he very much admired Lennon’s withdrawal from public life. When Lennon resurfaced in 1980, suddenly granting interviews and appearing in public, Chapman may have perceived a threat to the Salinger credo and a crack in the wall that protected Lennon’s splendid innocence.
The self-promotion accompanying Lennon’s re-entry into the world of high publicity was unlike anything he had ever done before, and it seems likely that Chapman found him listing dangerously toward commercialism. After six years of seclusion, news of John Lennon’s doings was everywhere. The hermit of rock had become all too accessible, in a People magazine, vulgar way. In many respects he resembled Paul McCartney promoting his albums, which led John Lennon’s fans to wonder, with some trepidation, what Lennon’s long-awaited album would sound like.
Since his death, Lennon’s last album, “Double Fantasy,” has been hailed as a rock classic. At the time of its release, however, when Lennon was still alive, the album received a very lukewarm reception. In England, his home country, The National Music Express suggested that “the old man” ought to have stayed in retirement and pointed out striking similarities between this album and the work of Paul McCartney, which Lennon was known to have found distasteful. Fans who hoped for, or expected, another album of the quality of “Imagine” were disappointed.
We can only speculate, of course, upon what effect Lennon’s re-emergence might have had on Mark Chapman. Perhaps Chapman had been perfectly content as long as Lennon remained in Salinger-like isolation. Now, however, Lennon thrust himself into the open with a McCartney-like publicity blitz and released what was generally acknowledged to be a mediocre piece of work, Lennon was in trouble; he was in danger of falling off the cliff, à la D. B. Caulfield and Paul McCartney. What could Mark Chapman do about it? If we examine the question with The Catcher in the Rye in mind, a most distressing, twisted solution arises. Simply put, it appears Chapman misread The Catcher in the Rye. He took the “catcher” passage to be the novel’s solution, when in fact it is the crisis.
No one who has read The Catcher in the Rye will argue that Holden Caulfield was a seriously disturbed sixteen-year-old. He wanders through New York with a genuine desire, to quote an old BeatIes tune, to “take a sad song and make it better,” but he doesn’t know how to begin. As a result he develops an all-purpose, self-protective cynicism, When challenged by his younger sister Phoebe to justify this cynicism, he offers the famous “catcher” speech. But the book doesn’t end there. What Holden has outlined in his “some crazy cliff” plan, and in his earlier “get the hell out” plan, is impossible. Holden Caulfield wants to stop reality. He wants to keep the children in the rye field from growing up. But growing up is the natural order of things. It cannot be stopped. Yet Holden longs to do the impossible. This is what brings about his crisis in The Catcher in the Rye.
Can it be that Mark Chapman, devoted J. D. Salinger reader, had his own difficulty in dealing with reality and responsibility in a world of grown-ups? In addition to The Catcher in the Rue, Chapman was known to favor a song of Lennon’s called “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Like Salinger’s rye fields, Lennon’s strawberry fields offered a frozen, unrealistic approach to life; it promised an eternity in a land where, to quote from the song, “nothing is real.” If Chapman was madly drawn to both Holden Caulfield’s “catcher” and John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields,” it is not inconceivable that he would have wanted Lennon himself to remain “caught” in his protective retreat, where “nothing is real.” Especially now, with the release of the mediocre album “Double Fantasy,” Mark Chapman could have viewed John Lennon poised on the edge of the crazy cliff, and it was up to him, Chapman, to play catcher in the rye.
So Chapman flew to New York and began a sojourn very much like the one that takes place in The Catcher in the Rye. Although it is difficult to know for certain how Chapman filled the time, he was in the city for two full days before the shooting. He is said to have switched hotels (as Holden did); walked out of a movie theater (“I hate the movies,” Holden says, “don’t even mention them to me”); and regaled a cab driver with tales of a forthcoming Lennon/McCartney album, which he claimed to be producing (”I’m a terrific liar,” Holden admits, “I have to watch myself sometimes”).
Now comes the large question: Why did Chapman shoot Lennon? Given his Holden Caulfield state of mind, wouldn’t it have made more sense to invite Lennon out for a night-cap somewhere or to go skating at Radio City, there to caution him against selling out? But Chapman was a confused, disturbed man. There are no easy explanations for why he did what he did. One answer is suggested in the pages of The Catcher in the Rye. Chapman may have believed that the highest possible attainment, at least as viewed through Salinger’s novel, would be to achieve that permanent state of innocence suggested in the “catcher” passage. Only one character in The Catcher in the Rye manages that unimpeachable innocence–Holden’s younger brother Allie. Allie is the only character in the novel, including Holden, who never shows any hint of phoniness, and who never will. How is this possible? It is possible only because Allie is dead.
Immediately preceding Caulfield’s “catcher” speech, which Chapman found so significant and which he recited at his trial, there is a section in the novel in which Holden’s sister Phoebe asks if her depressed brother can “name one thing” that he likes. Holden has a lot of trouble responding. He recalls a boy at school, James Castle, who, rather than taking back something he had said about a bully, jumped out of a fifth-floor window. Then he reveals what at first seems to be an unrelated piece of information: that he likes his brother Allie. “Allie’s dead!” Phoebe cries, “You always say that! If somebody’s dead and everything, and in Heaven, then it isn’t really–”
“I know he’s dead!” Holden returns. “Don’t you think I know that? I can still like him though, can’t I? Just because someone’s dead, you don’t just stop liking them, for God’s sake-especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know that’re alive and all.”
In the traditional interpretation of the novel, Holden’s reference to his brother is simply another indication of his unrealistic desire to freeze innocence and thwart phoniness. But Chapman, who wrote “This is my statement” in the flyleaf of his copy of the Salinger novel, was not a typical reader. To him, the “catcher” speech was the book’s final and transcendent message, which would make Allie the real hero of The Catcher in the Rye. Allie, in this reading, is the only character to come out unscathed. Death, then, would have presented itself to Chapman as the only safeguard against loss of innocence.
Holden Caulfield and Mark Chapman were faced with the same crisis: an assault on innocence. Holden Caulfield could not find a way to preserve innocence forever and was forced to entertain the notion of growing up. If I am correct in my speculation, Chapman found a way. Taking as a model the only character in The Catcher in the Rye who achieved perpetual innocence, Chapman found his course clear. For John Lennon’s innocence–which was essential to Chapman’s own spiritual well-being–to remain intact, Lennon himself would have to die. Only then could his innocence, like Allie’s, be preserved forever.
Unfortunately, this idea, as I have set it out here, is not as absurd or outrageous as it sounds. If Chapman’s intention was to secure, and even to improve, the legend of John Lennon, the artist of perfect integrity, he succeeded. Gone now is the John Lennon who once smeared excrement on the walls of his dressing room; who claimed that the Beatles were a bigger item than Christ; and who appeared in a Los Angeles nightclub with a Kotex on his head. In his place is a sort of rock-and-roll Gandhi. Because of his violent death, anything about him that is base or even unkind has been erased. In the most extraordinary way, John Lennon today is viewed as a man of pristine innocence—“a genius of the spirit,” Norman Mailer has called him. And all because Mark Chapman, standing outside the Dakota apartments, caught him in the rye.
Daniel Stashower is the author of The Boy Genius and The Mogul as well as the Edgar Award-winning Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle. He has also written five mystery novels, the most recent of which is The Houdini Specter. This article, his first published piece, appeared in the Summer 1983 issue of the Scholar.
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