Young Readers Embrace

J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye popularized the rebellious but sensitive young protagonist, providing a different kind of role model for the disillusioned youth of the 1950’s.

Summary of Event

The Catcher in the Rye was published on July 16, 1951. Reviewing it on the day of its publication, The New York Times called it “an unusually brilliant first novel.” The Saturday Review praised it as remarkable, and the Chicago Tribune found it “engaging and believable.” Although not all reviews were so favorable, the book climbed to number four on The New York Times best-seller list and stayed on the list for almost thirty weeks. Catcher in the Rye, The (Salinger)
[kw]Young Readers Embrace The Catcher in the Rye (July 16, 1951)
[kw]Readers Embrace The Catcher in the Rye, Young (July 16, 1951)
[kw]Catcher in the Rye, Young Readers Embrace The (July 16, 1951)
Catcher in the Rye, The (Salinger)
[g]North America;July 16, 1951: Young Readers Embrace The Catcher in the Rye[03530]
[g]United States;July 16, 1951: Young Readers Embrace The Catcher in the Rye[03530]
[c]Literature;July 16, 1951: Young Readers Embrace The Catcher in the Rye[03530]
Salinger, J. D.

The literary impact of J. D. Salinger’s first (and only) novel was not immediately predictable. Not until the mid-1950’s did The Catcher in the Rye become a talisman for disaffected adolescents on college campuses across America. Since then, it has enjoyed the dubious distinction of being the book most often banned in schools, as well as being required reading in freshman English classes. Innumerable essays have analyzed and psychoanalyzed the personality of the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, but despite any conclusions drawn by literary critics or Parent-Teacher Associations, The Catcher in the Rye continues to affect adolescents going through the turmoil of growing up.

The Catcher in the Rye was published when J. D. Salinger was thirty-two years old. Although he began to write at the age of fifteen and had short stories published in magazines when he was twenty-one, this was his only novel. Prior to its appearance, Salinger had twenty-one short stories published in such popular magazines as Collier’s, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, and The New Yorker.

Salinger’s short stories can be classed in three categories. “The Young Folks” “Young Folks, The” (Salinger)[Young Folks, The] (1940) and several other early works deal with social mores, family ties, artistic frustrations, and loss of innocence. The second group of stories derives from Salinger’s experiences in World War II. In 1942, Salinger was drafted and trained as a special security agent in the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps. He landed in Normandy on D day and took part in five campaigns in the European theater. His stories about the war range from one-pagers with surprise endings to explorations of the effects of the war on families. In “Last Day of the Last Furlough” “Last Day of the Last Furlough” (Salinger)[Last Day of the Last Furlough] (1944), Holden Caulfield Holden Caulfield (fictional character) makes his first appearance as a missing soldier. Holden’s character continues in the postwar stories “I’m Crazy” “I’m Crazy” (Salinger)[Im Crazy] (1945) and “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” (Salinger)[Slight Rebellion Off Madison] (1946). In 1946, Salinger submitted a ninety-page novella about Holden Caulfield that he later withdrew. Although Holden appeared in seven stories, it was not until 1951 that Salinger thought that his novel about this sensitive, disturbed sixteen-year-old was ready for public scrutiny.

The theme of individual against society is a common one. Literature and drama abound with heroes who put their individuality above the structured dictates of a rigid society, sometimes at the cost of their freedom or life. From Cyrano de Bergerac to Captain Ahab to Huck Finn, these protagonists stimulate rebellious natures, compelling action based on an instinct of what is the right, as opposed to the socially acceptable, thing to do. Salinger provided the youth of the 1950’s and subsequent decades with just such a protagonist in the person of Holden Caulfield, hero of The Catcher in the Rye.

Caulfield is a sixteen-year-old who has just been expelled from his third prep school. Rather than return home to his parents’ wrath, he decides to take a brief vacation in New York. Freed from the demands of school, classmates, and family, Caulfield roams the city for forty-eight hours. The reader, as his constant companion, shares his every thought and adventure. Caulfield is intensely sensitive and profoundly disturbed by just about everything. He feels sorry for people but cannot seem to get along with anyone other than his ten-year-old sister, Phoebe. Tormented by the angst of adolescence, he imagines himself being a “catcher in the rye,” preventing innocent children playing in a field from falling off a cliff. In Caulfield’s mind, this will keep them safe from the danger of growing up into a world of corrupted “phonies.”

Tragically, Caulfield’s rebellion is ineffectual. Life is not static. He cannot hold back change. His strike for independence and a sense of meaning is negated by his youth, inexperience, and overprotective upbringing. He does not have a personal quest or goal, merely an intense disgust for things as they are. All of his actions are thus in vain, resulting in more harm (usually to himself) than accomplishment.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Cold War and increasing materialism contributed to a dearth of spirituality and morality. In 1950, David Riesman published The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, Lonely Crowd, The (Riesman) a sociological study of the alienated individual torn between existential autonomy and the comfort of conformity. Holden Caulfield personified this struggle.

By the mid-1950’s, the teenage revolution was in full swing. Movies such as Rebel Without a Cause
Rebel Without a Cause (Ray) (1955) and The Wild One
Wild One, The (Benedek) (1953) turned James Dean and Marlon Brando into idols. For teenagers in the working class, leather jackets and motorcycles became essential symbols of the rebellion. On university campuses, however, The Catcher in the Rye was being rediscovered after a hiatus in popularity. Holden Caulfield’s futile search for honesty and “something noble to die for” reached out to the middle-class students who saw themselves as disillusioned intellectuals. Holden was elevated to the top of “best loved” student polls. Salinger gained the reputation as spokesperson for the young and was sought after as a guest speaker, much to his dismay.

With The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger became a household name. He was not well equipped to handle fame. Just before The Catcher in the Rye was published, he escaped to Britain to avoid the public’s reception of his work. He made his publisher promise not to send him any reviews and was annoyed that the original edition had his photograph on the back cover.

When he returned from Britain, Salinger dealt with his newfound celebrity status as best he could. He moved to an apartment in New York City and attempted to fit in with the literary crowd. In March, 1952, he went on a trip to Florida and Mexico. Upon his return, he decided to abandon New York for a cottage in the small town of Cornish, New Hampshire. He moved in on his thirty-fourth birthday and lived there in as much seclusion as possible.

Salinger did not publish for two years after the success of The Catcher in the Rye. On January 31, 1953, The New Yorker magazine printed “Teddy,” “Teddy” (Salinger)[Teddy (Salinger)] a story that reflected Salinger’s growing interest in Eastern philosophy and the teachings of the Hindu mystic Sri Ramakrishna. Between 1953 and 1965, Salinger wrote stories exclusively for The New Yorker. These were later published in the collections Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961), and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). Salinger’s only post-1953 story not to be included in a collection was his last: “Hapworth 16, 1924” (June, 1965). The stories that followed The Catcher in the Rye predominantly involved various members of the Glass family, which Salinger had introduced in earlier stories. There is no further mention of Holden Caulfield in any of them.

Salinger did not write anything for publication after 1965. His attempts to elude public attention were thwarted several times. In 1974, an unauthorized edition of previously uncollected stories was printed by unidentified parties. Salinger brought suit against the San Francisco booksellers who were distributing the pirated material and finally won in 1986. Also in 1986, Ian Hamilton Hamilton, Ian , a British writer, attempted to publish an unauthorized biography containing private material. Salinger obtained a restraining order. Two federal courts upheld his case, which was finalized when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review these previous verdicts. A permanent injunction was issued, but this did not prevent Hamilton and his publishers from releasing a redrafted book entitled In Search of J. D. Salinger
In Search of J. D. Salinger (Hamilton) (1988).

Another disturbing invasion of Salinger’s privacy came in 1988. John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, identified with Holden Caulfield and quoted from The Catcher in the Rye at his trial. The novel’s influence on the murderer was dramatized in The Man Who Shot John Lennon, a documentary broadcast on British television and the American Public Broadcasting Service Frontline program.

Since 1965, it would seem that the impact of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has been overshadowed by the aura of mystery surrounding the author himself. Occasionally, a journalist will claim to have been granted an interview. Most of these “scoops” are brief and uninformative; one actually was a hoax that earned the writer a lawsuit. In W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe
Shoeless Joe (Kinsella) (1982), J. D. Salinger was written in as a character who is kidnapped and taken to a baseball game. In the film version of Kinsella’s novel, Field of Dreams
Field of Dreams (Robinson) (1989), the Salinger-inspired character is played by James Earl Jones. In this fantasy, Salinger speaks openly of his life and work. Perhaps this was Kinsella’s way of compensating for the curiosity about the secretive man who wrote one of the most cherished and controversial novels of post-World War II literature.


The popularity of The Catcher in the Rye has not diminished with the decades. Although a product of the late 1940’s, Holden Caulfield continues as a symbol of youthful rebellion against conformity. Scholars have contended that the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War gave purpose to Holden’s passive nihilism, providing a motive for his anger. Readers associated Holden with antiwar antiheroes John Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) and Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (1969). These books provided intellectual arguments supporting the protest movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

The intensely emotional soul searching of adolescents seeking to define themselves in an adult world is universal and timeless. The Catcher in the Rye has gained worldwide recognition as a post-World War II classic and is required reading in many high schools and colleges. Holden Caulfield’s popularity, however, has always gone hand in hand with notoriety. Vulgar language and sexual content have caused The Catcher in the Rye to be banned Censorship;United States so often that the American School Board Journal of 1973 called it “the most widely censored book in the U.S.” Educators, parents, and literary critics label it as obscene, profane, and scandalous, removing it from library shelves and reading lists. Teachers who have assigned the book have been reprimanded or fired.

The Catcher in the Rye is perhaps the most popular and the most censored novel of post-World War II America. It has been labeled “great,” “true,” “perverse,” and “immoral.” Holden Caulfield has been called “the new American hero,” “a sorry little worm,” and “a very normal specimen of his age.” This broad spectrum of opinion dictates that readers judge for themselves. Catcher in the Rye, The (Salinger)

Further Reading

  • Belcher, William F., and James W. Lee, eds. J. D. Salinger and the Critics. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1962. Essays written within a decade of the publication of The Catcher in the Rye. Interesting because they are dated, these studies critique the novel and Salinger’s stories up to Franny and Zooey. Contains an amusing section called “Suggestions for Study and Writing” that probably was relied upon heavily by teachers of the 1960’s. Incomplete bibliography and extensive list of “Critical Studies.”
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Holden Caulfield. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. Compilation of essays examining the literary and cultural significance of the central character of The Catcher in the Rye. Bibliographic references and index.
  • French, Warren. J. D. Salinger, Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Intelligent look at Salinger’s work by a retired university professor who published his first book on Salinger in 1963. Brief and nonintrusive biography followed by thoughtful critiques. Chronology, references, and selected bibliography.
  • Hamilton, Ian. In Search of J. D. Salinger. New York: Random House, 1988. Salinger biography by a self-indulgent writer. This is the “authorized” version of the biography that Salinger took to court as an invasion of privacy. The last section describes the legal action in great detail; one can almost hear the author whining as the Supreme Court refused to reopen the case. References.
  • Salzman, Jack, ed. New Essays on “The Catcher in the Rye.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Five essays presenting distinct viewpoints on specific aspects of the novel. Interesting introduction covers trends in Salinger criticism over the forty years after publication of The Catcher in the Rye. Written for students of American literature. References and selected bibliography.
  • Steed, J. P.“The Catcher in the Rye”: New Essays. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. Compilation of early twenty-first century interpretations of Salinger’s novel by leading scholars. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Wenke, John. J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Part 1 is Wenke’s exploration of Salinger’s short stories; part 2 contains “Biographical Reflections on J. D. Salinger”; part 3 is a selection of critical excerpts discussing the later stories. Chronology and selected bibliography.

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