Catcher in the Rye: A 75-Year Look Back

J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1943) is one of the 20th century’s most controversial books along with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The controversy stemmed not only from the language which was raw, but also from Salinger’s depiction of an alientated 16-year-old’s point of view—both were unheard of at the time and led to great sales, but also the book’s being widely banned.

Seen from a distance of nearly seventy years, the languague in Catcher is no longer as shocking as it once was. Today readers might focus on the character’s attitude towards education, religion, women and gays, and culture. Holden Caulfield, however, undermines his judgements by second guessing himself over and over again and putting forth silly reasons for not liking things like movies for example.

Caulfield today is unlikely to serve as a role model for disaffected male teens. Instead, he seems a person to be pitied as a creature of a time period long gone. I suppose Catcher might find more interest in a psychology or sociology course than a lit course. Even then, however, he’s too easy to analyze––the product of an upper-middle class culture in a family where the successful older son has left for greener pastures and another died young––a traumatic incident in Holden’s life. Only his younger sister grounds him in reality, bringing him back from flights of fancy––running away or dying a noble, but young death.

To the extent that Salinger is able to attract our interest in his character is due to the book being written in first person. From Caulfield’s viewpoint, adults are unreliable and even dangerous; girls of his age are desirable, yet mysterious; and the schools he attended are more about his relationships with other students than the classes and supposed career advantages of passing them. The repetition of certain phrases grounds us in Caulfield’s personality while re-enforcing his limited life experience and world view.

It amazes me that Catcher remains widely read. It is a blip on the literary lanscape––a book everyone has to have read, but one I suspect that few identify as influential or of lasting interest.

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