Salinger, Lennon, Browning


by Steve King

On this day in 1980 Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon outside his New York City apartment building. There are two books by him (In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works), and many about him, but the book which will forever be associated with Lennon is The Catcher in the Rye. After shooting Lennon four times, Chapman sat down on the sidewalk to read the book while he waited for police — or perhaps just to have it ready for presentation, given that he had inscribed the inside cover with “This is my statement. Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye.” Even Chapman’s previous days were made to parallel Holden’s: a lonely, pre-Christmas wandering through the streets of New York; a prostitute, who arrived as Holden’s did in a green dress (and also left without doing much more than take it off); talks with strangers about where the central park ducks go in winter (though this to a cop rather than a cabby, and getting not even a stare rather than a reassurance about how Mother Nature provides). To all this Chapman, or his voices, added his own twists: the refrain, The phony must die says The Catcher in the Rye, the gun and hollow-point bullets, the lifelong confusion over identity and purpose.

This last question, recast now as a search for motive, dominated the next days and months — and still dominates, if not Chapman but his parole board is right. Two hours after the murder, Chapman told police that he killed because he wasn’t Holden enough:

Then this morning I went to the bookstore and bought The Catcher in the Rye. I’m sure the large part of me is Holden Caulfield, who is the main person in the book. The small part of me must be the Devil.
I went to the building. It’s called the Dakota. I stayed there until he came out and asked him to sign my album. At that point my big part won and I wanted to go back to my hotel, but I couldn’t.

At the trial, he killed because he was too Holden, his pre-sentence statement being a reading aloud of the passage from the text which begins, “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all….” And months afterwards Chapman was happily handing out autographed copies of the book from the supply he kept in his cell. After many years in isolation, Chapman now mixes with a controlled group of prisoners, and says he is over wanting to be Holden, or famous. His keepers have now turned down his parole bid three times, citing the “bizarre and morally corrupt” nature of the crime, and “your continued interest in maintaining your notoriety.”

For Lennon and Yoko Ono, the most persistent and last literary connection was not Salinger but the Brownings. Lennon’s last journal entry quotes the very un-Holden beginning of Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” turned into song in Lennon’s last year-“Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be….” The recent DVD, Lennon Legend, tries to keep the man and the music in view, but the flip-side continues to intrude: last week four bidders met the half-million dollar asking price for the “Double Fantasy” album which Lennon autographed for Chapman just hours before being shot. This was found on the ground at the murder scene, and as it was used in evidence at Chapman’s trial, it boasts his “forensically enhanced” fingerprints.

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