The Catcher in the Rye. Book cover. Fair use

Holden Caulfield, wandering without any destination, depressed, expelled from school (also for this reason he had secretly come to New York where he had gone through weird experiences), visits one of the few teachers who appreciated him, Mr. Antolini, an intelligent young man who had married a woman who was rich and much older than him (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 24). After the initial greetings, Antolini asks him:

“How’d you do in English? I’ll show you the door in short order if you flunked English, you little ace composition writer.”
“Oh, I passed English all right (…) I flunked Oral Expression, though (…).
“Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know (…) “It’s this course where each boy in class has to get up in class and make a speech. You know. Spontaneous and all. And if the boy digresses at all, you’re supposed to yell ‘Digression!” at him as fast as you can. It just about drove me crazy. I got an F in it.”
“Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know. That digression business got on my nerves. (…) The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”
(…) The boys that got the best marks in Oral Expression were the ones that stuck to the point all the time – I admit it. But there was this one boy, Richard Kinsella. He didn’t stick to the point too much and they were always yelling ‘Digression!’ at him. It was terrible, because in the first place, he was a very nervous guy (…) When his lips sort of quit shaking a little bit, though, I liked his speeches better than anybody else’s. (…) For instance, he made this speech about this farm his father bought in Vermont. They kept yelling ‘Digression!’ at him the whole time he was making it (…) What he did was, Richard Kinsella, he’d start telling you all about that stuff – then all of a sudden he’d start telling you about this letter his mother got from his uncle, and how his uncle got polio and all when he was forty-two years old, and how he wouldn’t let anybody come to see him in the hospital because he didn’t want anybody to see him with a brace on. It didn’t have much to do with the farm – I admit it – but it was nice. It’s nice when somebody tells you about their uncle. Especially when they start out telling you about their father’s farm and then all of a sudden get more interested in their uncle. I mean it’s dirty to keep yelling ‘Digression!’ at him when he’s all nice and excited …. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.” (…).
“Holden … One short, faintly stuffy, pedagogical question (…). Don’t you think if someone starts out to tell you about his father’s farm, he should stick to his guns, then get around to telling you about his uncle’s brace? Or, if his uncle’s brace is such a provocative subject, shouldn’t he have selected it in the first place as his subject – not the farm?”
(…).
“Yes – I don’t know. I guess he should. I mean I guess he should’ve picked his uncle as a subject, instead of the farm, if that interested him most. But what I mean is, lots of time you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most. I mean you can’t help it sometimes. What I think is, you’re supposed to leave somebody alone if he’s at least being interesting and he’s getting all excited about something. I like it when somebody gets excited about something. It’s nice. You just didn’t know this teacher, Mr. Vinson. (…) he’d keep telling you to unify and simplify all the time. Some things you just can’t do that to.”

Holden will then run into a further letdown since, after getting to bed and going to sleep in a room of his teacher’s house, he finds out how Mr. Antolini has an interest in him which goes beyond a teacher-to-pupil relationship

Waking up suddenly in the night he sees Mr. Antolini sitting in the dark very close to him and caressing his head. This cannot but increase his alienation from the world, when even the few good masters he has met (or fathers, each new generation needing fathers in the broad sense) have interest in him for reasons different in any case from the ones he had imagined.

Italian version

Other related posts:

A Novel in the Hands of the Killers
Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

14 thoughts on “Digression vs Sticking to the Point

  1. @Poonam
    Thanks. Salinger is such a great writer. His slang has been my model of American slang for a long time. I’m sure it has influenced my writing.

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  2. About this book, mm..it impressed me a lot. I have read this book twice. Thanks so much to the one who recommended me to read it. 😀 It let me know what American slang is and it was the first book which induced me to read other books…I like reading!!! The second book i had read was High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. 🙂

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  3. @AutumnSnow
    I am glad you liked it and that American slang didn’t scare you lol. I think Salinger is excellent training for American slang (of course now songs also help a lot, but a good book is something else I believe).

    Well, Salinger was writing in the 1940s, which is quite far in the past, but I think most of his slang is still current today (like Roman slang didn’t change much since the 50s, though here it is a different world). When I was very young I fancied American slang, really. I loved it together with all things American (America had won the war etc.). When I grew older only I could finally appreciate the extreme beauty of UK civilization and language, which was added to my Anglo-Saxon mania (I still like America: first love you do not forget easily lol).
    So, you being Chinese, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby seems to me also a perfect introduction to UK and its language, so witty and full of humour (just to mention a few of its qualities).

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  4. salinger is very digressive himself as am i. which as he said does make things more interesting, and thats what makes his book interesting. Its what makes life interesting. If you stuck to one thing in life you would be the most boring person in the world. if you stuck to one person in life you would never know what other people would be like. Digression is important in life…..use it!

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  5. @Melony

    Well, Melony, I am using digression a lot in my blog. Although I think that both things, metaphorically, should be present in life: digressing and sticking to the point. Some further discussion on this point is here in my blog, where I write, among the rest:
    Salinger’s way of writing is “so rich with digressions, facts within facts, ideas within ideas, that it creates an overall effect of chaotic freshness memorably depicting an adolescent mind definitely undisciplined … although so vivacious and sparkling.”

    All the best

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  6. I love digression. If you really want a good literary example, read Melville’s Billy Budd! Or Moby Dick – one big digression as a novel..?

    I read Catcher in high school, and I have never understood its appeal. My daughter feels the same way. I don’t get the sense that actual teenagers think it says much about them. I thought it was dated in its language when I read it in the 70’s. If you use that slang in the US now, people will think you watch too many old movies.

    I like your blog – I LOVE Rome!!

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  7. @Lichanos

    Thank you for your appreciation, and welcome to my blog! I’ll have a look at Melville’s Billy Budd. Moby Dick, I’ve already read it.

    I love digression …I read Catcher in high school, and I have never understood its appeal. My daughter feels the same way.

    I love digression too. In literature and art in general, I don’t believe in Beauty good for every taste. I was instead hit by Salinger a lot. I probably was a difficult teenager, who knows, plus his slang, even if outdated, really sent me to heaven. Weird. I was 17-18, and started to study American slang after that. Sometimes I use Salinger’s slang – I guess a mummy like me shouldn’t fear to be old-fashioned!

    One more thing. The Catcher read at school might be really boring. The book is interesting also because of its various layers of meaning. For example, refusing to stick to the point was like a symbol of anarchic revolt against order and self-discipline. I was struck when I found out that both the person who killed John Lennon and the guy who tried to assassinate Reagan were passionate readers of this book. I wrote about this in:
    A Novel in the Hands of the Killers

    My best regards

    MoR

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  8. I was struck when I found out that both the person who killed John Lennon and the guy who tried to assassinate Reagan were passionate readers of this book…

    Yes, I saw your post. I wasn’t aware of this connection, but my immediate reaction is, “Why expect lunatics to have sophisticated taste in literature..?” There are lots of weirdos around who think Ayn Rand is the last word in the art of the novel, and so on…

    When I was a student visiting Italy, I observed many, what you call “silly teenagers,” who were “hunting” female tourists. I always wondered what makes them act so? Thanks for explaining…

    Ciao!

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  9. @lichanos

    Ciao! I am not very proud of my silly teenager period. But one reason why I love exploring history and connect it with personal experience – sometimes in my own way – is because it makes one aware of many things and behaviours, and of the richness of life.

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