J. D. Salinger
Among the best-selling novels of all time, as first published in 1951 and made timely again by the death of the author in 2001, Catcher in the Rye (“Catcher”) has been banned by schools, libraries, churches, etc., due to is presumed immorality (profanity, sexual content, rejection of America’s 1940’s mores, etc.), but, despite this (or because of it), the book’s sales have continued to soar over the years. Teenagers have consistently loved it, as it sanctions some level of rebellion, or rebellious thoughts at least. Catcher, in many ways, is everyman’s book; that is, it tells a sad, teenage story that applies, in sufficient part, to all of us. Like Dostoyevsky, Salinger is a bit of a psychologist; he understood his own mind and made it ring true in his characters. Before he passed in 2010, he authored a series of short stories and several lesser noted books, but his “masterpiece”, Catcher, has sold some 65 million copies, making it among the best selling books of all time. Such a financial triumph demands our inspection.
Catcher was written by an enigmatic recluse, J.D. Salinger, who, according to press accounts, spent his lifetime hiding from society, in self-imposed seclusion mostly in New Hampshire, and successfully cloaking his life and persona in mystery, while often appearing as “unkempt” in rare public sightings, and even rejecting all attempts to make movies of his works (even to the point of suing people to enjoin any such efforts). Born in 1919, although obviously intelligent, he was an average student and a college dropout (sadly before he mastered the rudiments of syntax).
The question remains, “Is it a great book – i.e., one that enhanced our lives, or thrilled us to read and/or inspired re-reading?” It is a patently autobiographical account of a 1940’s disturbed 16-year-old, Holden Caulfield, who loathes “phonies” (although he, himself, is one), who feels alienated from society, who suffers from the death of his brother and from his difficulties adjusting to school and life in general, a level of despair so deep that he contemplates suicide. (A psychologist once told me that almost all people contemplate suicide, at one point or another in their lives; so, Salinger hit a resonant chord here.) Caulfield, then, is a malcontent and harbors subversive instincts, but he’s not a rebel, per se, more of a dropout, recalling Poe’s Alone,
“From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were – I have not seen as other’s saw”
or, more aptly, the Divine Alexander Pope’s immortal Ode on Solitude,
“Let me live unseen, unknown
Thus unlamented let me die,
Steal from the world and not a stone
Tell where I lie.”
(Indeed, Salinger did his best to emulate those very lines; he might have authored them, had he the skills of classic poets.) Catcher gave us teenage-introspection and likely served as a precursor to the later-published Portnoy’s Complaint and/or Rebel without a Cause, the movie of which introduced the iconic, troubled James Dean. Catcher is written almost entirely as an outpouring of its character-Holden’s thoughts or as dialogue, in the abrasively dissonant slang-vernacular of WWII teenagers, and, sadly, it is devoid of any redeeming descriptive passages or the poetic feel and flow that we admire in great novels.
This reader’s life was not enhanced by Catcher; it taught nothing that will help me or make me feel better, and its prose, as pure prose, are not worth the price of admission, and, in no event, does it justify or entice re-reading, the litmus test for classics. Regardless, it is a short and easy read and has been, is, and will remain so widely discussed that it seems a shame not to read it, if for no other reason than to be competent to participate in discussions of such an enormous best seller.