The Catcher in the Rye Through the Ages
By: Hannah S.
Throughout the six decades since its publication, a maelstrom of censorship, ridicule, and dismissal has plagued J.D. Salinger’s American classic, The Catcher in the Rye. Critics have consistently discredited its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, by reducing his complexity to the confines of teenage angst. Salinger’s own seclusion may have barred the story’s expansion into modern media and culture. The American Library Association identifies the novel as one of the most challenged classics of all time. Yet, it remains a bestseller. Despite major shifts in society, The Catcher in the Rye prevails as an anthem of adolescence.
At its core, The Catcher in the Rye is remarkably simple. Following his expulsion from Pencey Preparatory School, seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield journeys home. As Holden wanders New York over the course of three days, the plot follows his failing attempts to truly reach the strangers and acquaintances he encounters. The story cycles through a repertoire of Holden’s excessive smoking and drinking, explicit language, and other rebellious antics.
Although rich with symbolism, motifs, and conscious diction, The Catcher in the Rye carries tremendous impact outside of its literary value. Salinger himself described how “the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener, his asides about gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons – in a word, his thoughts.” In this sense, the novel is incredibly accessible to a broad audience.
Ultimately, this relents to the work’s driving force: Holden’s growth. In actuality, Salinger prevents readers from witnessing substantial development until the final pages. The vast majority of the narrative features the obnoxiously cynical antihero clinging to youth with agonizing desperation. He is unable to effectively communicate with other characters — a product of their apparent reluctance to listen, circumstance, and the narrator’s own shortcomings. He is perpetually critical and dismissive. He spirals into neglect and self-destruction. However, he eventually finds his way back to his younger sister, Phoebe. Phoebe showers Holden with affection, refuses to abandon him, and proves that he is loved. Toward the conclusion of the novel, the siblings visit a carousel together. It is there, in a stunning union of Phoebe’s innocence and Holden’s acceptance of its departure, that Holden proclaims that he “felt so damn happy.” The volume with which bleak content cascades into the roots of hope brings refined poignancy to The Catcher in the Rye.
These themes have propelled the book into its significance in the present. Many, including reporter Jennifer Schuessler, claim that “young readers just don’t like Holden as much as they used to,” citing outdated diction and a “more competitive” culture for high school students today. While reception inevitably changes with society, this does not equate to irrelevance. Facets of Holden’s behavior which the 1951 audience may have regarded as relatable may settle into young readers’ minds as irrational. However, this only amplifies The Catcher in the Rye as a testament to genuine pain in youth. If readers view Holden as a broken, emotionally immature boy, his slow downfall and first steps toward recovery contain far greater depth than that of a shallow outcast.
The Catcher in the Rye, like other definitive works of contemporary literature, is far from timeless. Still, as it graduates from interpretations of glorious teenage anarchy and victory over “phonies,” it leaves readers with a profound truth:
“Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them — if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”