Holden's meeting with Mr. Spencer is one of the funniest episodes in the book. Many of us can sympathize with Holden because we have had the experience in school, at one time or another, of trying to make something out of nothing, so to speak. The essay that Holden has to listen to is a good example of the kind of stuff a student will turn out in a desperate effort to squeeze some words out on paper when his mind is a complete blank. The paper is very short.
The Egyptians are extremely interesting to us today for various reasons. Modern science would still like to know what the secret ingredients were that the Egyptians used when they wrapped up dead people so that their faces would not rot for innumerable centuries. This interesting riddle is still quite a challenge to modern science in the twentieth century.
Holden is well aware that this is not much to say about one of the world's oldest civilizations. He thinks that Mr. Spencer must either be trying to embarrass him or that the old teacher doesn't appreciate the fact that he already feels ashamed of his production without having it thrown back in his face. Holden writes:
It certainly was a dirty trick.
Holden is irked for several reasons. One is that he really is a good writer. He could very well be the best writer in the entire school, not excluding the teachers. Here he is writing a sort of confession or memoir which will become The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most popular novels ever published in the United States. J. D. Salinger, the real author, takes considerable pains to make it seems plausible that Holden could write such a book at the age of sixteen. We can sympathize with Holden because he could have written dozens of interesting pages for the assignment if only he had been interested in the subject and if only he had not been plagued by distracting thoughts and emotions. Another reason Mr. Spencer's "dirty trick" irks him is that he thought he was visiting the old gentleman as an act of courtesy and kindness, but he finds he has walked into an inquisition.
He stopped reading and put my paper down. I was beginning to hate him.
Mr. Spencer feels obligated to give Holden some advice, but Holden stops really listening. He has heard it all before. This is at least the third time he has been expelled from a school. When the old teacher asks if he has no concern about his future, Holden replies:
"Oh, I feel some concern for my future, all right. Sure. Sure, I do." I thought about it for a minute. "But not too much, I guess. Not too much, I guess."
By this point Holden is getting desperate to escape from the room that smells of Vicks Nose Drops and sorry he ever came. One of the many interesting things about this chapter is that Holden can see much deeper into Mr. Spencer than Mr. Spencer can see into him. To the old teacher, the boy is an enigma. But to the boy, the old man is transparent. Older people should read, or re-read, that chapter when they are dealing with their teenager. It could remind them that the young person is judging them at the same time they are judging him.
In The Catcher in the Rye the hero Holden Caulfield knows a lot more than he knows he knows. That is part of what makes the book so appealing.
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