Catcher in the Rye, the hilarious and profane classic tale of adolescent alienation, begins with Holden Caulfield’s 951voice:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
J.D. Salinger spent much of the rest of his life avoiding discussion of that David Copperfield kind of crap, famously withdrawing from the world in the 1950s.
He was born Jan. 1, 1919 to a prosperous Jewish family in Manhattan. In 1942 he was drafted into the U.S. Army and he saw combat, participating in the invasion of Normandy. While overseas he entered a liberated concentration camp and met Ernest Hemingway. After the war, he wrote short stories and poems. He only had limited success until The New Yorker magazine published A Perfect Day for Bananafish in 1948.
Catcher in the Rye
On July 16, 1951, Little, Brown and Company published Catcher in the Rye. It told the story of Holden Caulfield’s weekend in New York City hotel after his fourth prep school, Pencey Prep, kicked him out.
Pencey Prep had plenty of phonies, and Holden hated them. He also hated the movies, hated growing up, hated cars, hated a lot of things. “Goddam money,” he said. “It always ends up making you blue as hell.”
But Holden also wanted to catch children from running off a cliff. And he worried about where the ducks in Central Park went in the wintertime.
Catcher in the Rye was banned in schools and in several countries because Holden drank and swore. He also visited a prostitute, though he didn’t have sex with her because of his depression. That only increased its appeal to teenagers. British literary critic Ian Hamilton wrote it “become the book all brooding adolescents had to buy, the indispensable manual from which cool styles of disaffectation could be borrowed.”
Gerald Rosen maintained that Holden’s profound disillusionment got the book banned. “The radical nature of Salinger’s portrayal of disappointment with American society, so much like Twain’s in Huck Finn, was probably as much of the reason that Catcher (like Huck) was banned from schools and colleges as were the few curse words around which the battle was publicly fought,” he wrote.
The book reached the best-seller list in 1951 and has sold 65 million copies. Critic Adam Gopnik called it one of the three perfect books in American literature, joining Huck Finn and The Great Gatsby. Between 1961 and 1982, it was the most studied novel in U.S. high schools and libraries. It also got teachers fired for teaching it.
In “The Why of the Rye,“ Sarah Graham in BBC Magazine opined that Catcher appealed to a rising generation of teenagers who identified with Holden’s existential angst. “The first novel of the modern teenage years,” she called it in 2009.
Others have called it a war novel. Salinger had, after all, experienced the horrors of World War II (see his short story, For Esme — With Love and Squalor). Rosen, for example, argued that Holden’s truant weekend resembled the Buddha’s quest to find a guide to help him confront death and decay.
A book reaching tens of millions of people is bound to have detractors. Some found the plot dull and the hero self-obsessed and whiny. Catcher has aged, too, and Salinger’s 1940s New York slang seems outdated.
The book also inspired several notorious acts of violence. Mark David Chapman, after gunning down John Lennon in 1980, stayed at the scene reading Catcher in the Rye. He had written in it, “To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement.” Then after John Hinckley, Jr., tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan, police found the book in his hotel room.
As Catcher in the Rye earned more notoriety, Salinger withdrew from public view. That added to the novel’s mystique. He moved to Cornish, N.H., in 1953. For a time he invited Windsor High School students to his house to play records and talk. Then one student persuaded him to do an interview for the high school paper. After the interview appeared, he cut off all contact with the students.
After Catcher in the Rye, Salinger only published three more books: Nine Stories in 1953, Franny and Zooey in 1961 and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.
On the dust jacket to Franny and Zooey he wrote,
It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.
J.D. Salinger died Jan. 27, 2010.
Photo of J.D. Salinger by Washington Post via Wikipedia. With thanks to Gerald Rosen (1977). A Retrospective Look at the Catcher in the Rye. American Quarterly, 29(5), 547-562. doi:10.2307/2712573. This story was updated in 2021.