|“The Catcher in the Rye”
By J.D. Salinger
Background and Context
“The Catcher in the Rye” began life as a serial in a magazine called The New Yorker, before making its debut as a novel in 1951. It became the novel that defined Jerome David Salinger. The book immediately caused controversy. Although many reviewers considered it a sensational achievement, others objected to its use of ‘bad’ language and the shocking nature of some of the scenes. Reading the novel now, it can be difficult to imagine the fuss its content caused, but in the 1950s, the novel’s main character, Holden Caulfield, was seen by many to be a bad influence on young people. Essentially, Holden was literature’s first teen rebel and as a result, the novel was banned in certain areas. Now the novel is universally regarded as a modern classic and it continues to be read and studied all over the world.
America at the Time of Publication
“The Catcher in the Rye” is set just after WWII, a time of great prosperity and power for the USA. It was extremely wealthy and the consumer society was spreading all over the nation. The American Dream encouraged everyone to believe that they could be rich and successful. For many however, success evaded them and the ‘Dream’ became more of a nightmare. The USA was the ultimate Capitalist society and as the USSR became more powerful as a Communist country, the two countries became sworn enemies. As a result, the USA became a very conservative society, suspicious of anyone who did not share the accepted beliefs of the government. In “The Catcher in the Rye”, Holden rebels against many of these attitudes. He hates anything he sees as being ‘phony’ or fake and seems at odds, an outsider from the prevailing society.
“The Catcher in the Rye” also coincides with the rise of the teenager. Before the 1950s there was no real concept of the teenager as a separate social group. There was no music or fashion aimed at a teen audience. However that all changed with the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the emergence of teenage rebels, youth tribes like the Teddy Boys and teen icons such as Elvis, James Dean and Marlon Brando. It was in this decade that people started to talk about a ‘generation gap’ between teenagers and their parents. Holden was one of the first spokespersons for the disaffected youth of the world.
The novel has continued to court controversy and devotion in equal measure throughout the years since its publication. Its creator, J.D. Salinger, became a reclusive individual who rarely gave any interviews about his iconic work. If anything, this has added to its mystique and encouraged the sort of devoted and obsessive fanbase that rarely occurs with serious works of fiction.
It quickly became the most censored piece of literature in the 20th century and there are cases of American teachers being suspended for setting the text for a class. Much of the profanity was routinely censored in printed versions for many years, although Holden’s ‘immoral’ behaviour in the novel remained a problem for America’s powerful right-wing. This was not so easy to censor and the novel was not widely taught in certain American states until relatively recent times.
J.D. Salinger also refused permission for screen adaptations of his novel right up until his death. He was disdainful of Hollywood’s treatment of fiction and stubbornly refused offers of huge amounts of money to allow a film version.
Perhaps the most notorious of all the cultural legacies the novel has unwittingly been connected with, is the death of John Lennon. His murderer, Mark Chapman was obsessed by the book and was carrying a copy with him when he shot John Lennon in New York outside Central Park. He dedicated the murder to Holden Caulfield. In Chapman’s twisted mind, John Lennon had abandoned his previous, radical political stance and was therefore exactly the type of “phony” that Holden despised.