For fans of J.D. Salinger’s classic novel The Catcher in the Rye, the vast emotional and existential explorations of the hero of J. William Lewis' debut novel will ring true. The magnitude of the adolescent burden found a home in Holden Caulfield, and so it has once again in Kit Biddle of The Essence of Nathan Biddle. Kit was inspired not only by Holden by also by the author’s teenage self, and here Lewis elaborates on these connections—and where they begin to fray.
July 16, 2021, will mark the 70th anniversary of the publication of The Catcher in the Rye. The first printing caused an almost imperceptible ripple in the publishing world, perhaps because it was a coming-of-age novel about a rich kid from Manhattan who has been expelled from his prep school.
The ripple became a tidal wave as young people, including me, found something familiar about Holden Caulfield’s angst in a troubled world. We loved the vernacular, the seemingly effortless use of language, Holden’s verbal skills and artistic perceptions. We identified with Holden even if we didn’t have the same experiences, because we shared his insecurities and bafflements. We had angst, we felt alone, and we struggled to work through the inscrutable quandaries of life. We knew we were reading a literary tour de force that would continue to resonate with readers for generations. The angst of young Holden is universal because we live in a world that, in the best of circumstances, is often harsh and incomprehensible.
When novelist David Armstrong observed that “The Essence of Nathan Biddle is like discovering The Catcher in the Rye all over again,” I was immensely flattered. I was also impressed by his perspicacity: I had conceived the notion of writing The Essence after rereading The Catcher in my late 40s. When I read the book as an adolescent, I mostly focused on the similarities, i.e., the actions and reactions, emotions and insecurities I shared with Holden. The peculiar thing was that when I reread the novel as an adult, I focused more on the dissimilarities: the sources of angst and confusion I had as an adolescent that Holden seemed only vaguely concerned about.
The angst of young Holden is universal because we live in a world that, in the best of circumstances, is often harsh and incomprehensible.
Holden was at once naive and peculiarly sophisticated for his age. (His age is not clear, but he was probably 15 or 16 when he left Pensey and maybe 17 when he began describing his adventure.) He had obviously read David Copperfield, and he knew his way around New York. He also knew how to find a hotel that would rent a room to a teenager, and he seems to have understood that the hotel he chose had prostitutes available. I knew no one at 16 who thought he could rent a hotel room. Despite his sophistication, many of us felt superior to him in some ways, particularly his perception of and interactions with the opposite sex. Indeed, Holden’s relationships with the novel’s female characters seem almost pre-adolescent. He mostly talks and watches and wonders. When I read the novel as an adult, it occurred to me that Holden is endearing precisely because he is both superior and inferior at the same time.
The dissimilarities in the actions and reactions of Holden and Kit Biddle, the protagonist of The Essence of Nathan Biddle, stem from the primary sources of their angst. Both are off-balance, but Holden is seriously unstable. Kit requires psychiatric attention, while Holden is institutionalized. The destabilizing event in Holden’s life is the sickness and death of his brother Allie from leukemia when Holden was 13. The destabilizing event for Kit is the murder of his cousin by Kit’s intelligent but unstable uncle. Both Holden and Kit suffer from post-traumatic stress that leads to disruptive behavior. Neither gets immediate help from a counselor, but Kit, unlike Holden, gets emotional support from his mother, who ultimately arranges for Kit to talk to a psychiatrist. By contrast, Holden is sent to a sanitarium in California, all the way across the continent, where visits from family and friends will be few and far between.
The disparate points of view of these protagonists stem from their responses to the tragedies in their lives. Both become isolated and obsessive, but Holden’s primary response is to declare the world absurd and “phony” and to dissociate from the realities of his life: In particular, he develops a hero complex in which he is the protector and savior of young kids (like his brother Allie). He imagines himself as a catcher if a kid falls off a cliff near a field of rye, mixing his emotional needs with his garbled lyrics from “Comin’ thro’ the rye.”
Most of Holden’s trek from Pensey prep is dissociative but not dangerously destructive behavior. In contrast, Kit’s reaction to the bizarre murder of Nathan is not only isolation and introspection but ultimately near self-destruction. Holden tells the story of his meandering trek from Pensey only because the sanitarium personnel demand it, not because he wants to tell it. Kit, however, needs and wants to tell his story and to tell the story well.
While the disparate points of view are defined by circumstances, the underlying angst is universal. To the suggestion that Kit will ever be the protagonist that Holden is, we in the Catcher cult demur vigorously. It is nonetheless a great honor to have their stories compared.