The Catcher in the Rye
by J. D. Salinger
Born on January 1, 1919, Jerome David Salinger was raised in a relatively wealthy family in New York City. He studied at a military academy in Pennsylvania and began writing at the age of fifteen before entering the service. His first novel, The Catcher in the Rye, attained both popular and literary notoriety as one of the first works to address the cultural homogeneity and compliance of the postwar era.
Events in History at the Time of the Novel
Conformity and postwar society
The years after World War II are often described as a period of cultural conformity. After witnessing horrible events that shattered seemingly stable and familiar realms, Americans longed for a return to normalcy characterized by a home, stability, and financial security. These features became elements of the “good” life.
Economically, the United States experienced unprecedented growth after World War II. The gross national product rose from $200 billion in 1940 to $500 billion by 1960. Middle-class families had more discretionary income than ever before, and seemed eager to spend it. They bought inexpensive, prefabricated houses located in the suburbs, away from crowded and dirty cities. By 1960, 62 percent of Americans owned their own homes, compared to only 43 percent in 1940. At the same time, an increase in mass production brought television sets, cars, and a variety of household gadgets onto the market at affordable prices. Life, it seemed, was better than ever. Yet this unprecedented growth in consumerism also produced some unexpected effects. One noticeable result was an increase in standardization and a corresponding reduction in individual differences. The prefabricated houses, for example, were economical, roomy, and clean—but built according to standard, predetermined sizes, shapes, and colors, which allowed little room for architectural creativity.
The educational system as well as the work force contributed to the conformist mentality of the era. As the gross national product increased, money was poured into the educational system; between 1945 and 1950 expenditures for public schools doubled. Attendance at colleges and universities also increased as the 1944 GI Bill helped pay for the education of over 8 million military personnel. Higher education became a way to acquire Page 74 | Top of Articlethe specialized skills necessary to enter the work force. Schools encouraged students to pursue training that would guarantee them jobs with large corporations—jobs that in turn promised stability, money, and subsequent happiness. The corporations themselves, which had grown enormously along with the country, encouraged their employees to look, act, and dress alike. Radio Corporation of America (RCA), for example, issued company neckties, and many businesses stressed the importance of teamwork over individuality. In response to such attitudes, sociologist C. Wright Mills noted, “when white-collar people get jobs, they sell not only their time and energy but their personalities as well” (Mills in Nash, p. 926).
Prep schools and the pressure to conform
Pressure to conform was especially intense at prep schools of the 1950s—private all-male or all-female high schools that catered to the upper classes. The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield attends such a school. In real life, prep-school students followed a rigorous schedule, with prescribed times for eating, studying, attending class or chapel, playing sports, and going to bed. Meanwhile, they separated themselves into little cliques or groups of their own. From the cliques, as well as the strict schedules and rules, came the pressure to conform. As two authorities note, the students were taught to be somebody great in society, but few were ever “told [to] ‘just be yourself” (Cookson and Persell, p. 43). Exasperated with Holden, his roommate links his problems to his resistance to conform: “No wonder you’re flunking the hell out of here.... You don’t do one damn thing the way you’re supposed to” (Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, p. 53). In fact, prep schools had their share of real-life “misfits”; unable to cope, young men like Holden took drugs, committed suicide, or had breakdowns. Crack-ups, say the authorities, were “more common than most [school] heads will admit” (Cookson and Persell, p. 104).
Postwar attitudes toward women
Society showed a desire for financial and social stability that at the same time led to an increase in conservative values. General attitudes toward women’s roles in society, for example, grew somewhat reactionary. There was a post-World War II baby boom, which increased the cultural emphasis on the home—familial day-to-day duties were perceived as a woman’s primary responsibility. Women were expected to marry young, have babies, and support their husbands’ careers. Society foisted these values on women of all ethnic groups—though some, out of necessity or preference, continued to work outside the home. Even in these cases, though, the woman’s job was considered secondary to her perceived roles as wife and mother. The focus on these roles, and on the proper execution of them, is reflected in The Catcher in the Rye by Sally, who does not react with surprise to Holden’s premature suggestion that they elope. She insists only that they wait awhile in order to marry properly with a ceremony, a scheduled honeymoon, and a plan for their lives.
Diametrically opposed to the perception of women as submissive wives and dutiful mothers, but also rampant during this era, was the image of women as sexual goddesses. Such ideals were embodied by the larger-than-life figures of Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, both of whom seemed to personify raw sex and rose to stardom in the 1950s, around the time of The Catcher in the Rye’s publication. Representations of women as sexual objects and/or wives and mothers were images designed to fulfill contradictory male ideals. The confusion this generated manifests it-self in the novel. Holden calls a girl whom he has never met because she is supposedly loose, then picks up female tourists, and later encounters a prostitute. At the same time, he is sickened by the thought of an old flame of his having sex with his friend Stradlater, and he falls in love and wants to elope with Sally. Holden’s dealing with females can, in part, be seen as a result of the diverse images of women promoted by his postwar society.
As Holden meanders through New York City, he spends much of his time musing about girls and trying to reconcile his sexual insecurities with friends and acquaintances who cannot help. He even confronts homosexuality. When a trusted teacher makes advances at him, Holden intimates that this is not the first such experience he has had: “When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuffs happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it” (The Catcher in the Rye, p. 249).
Holden’s sexuality, the scene with the prostitute mentioned above, and the novel’s homosexual references all shocked the sensibilities of some readers. Matter-of-fact public discussion about sex was almost nonexistent in the early 1950s, and such literature was construed by some as obscene. At the time, the public regarded sex as something that should happen only between married people, not a subject for open discussion, literature, or research.
Only a few years earlier, however, Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, a professor at Indiana University, had broken new ground in establishing sexuality as a viable public topic by publishing a controversial book called Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948). Appalled at the lack of scientific information on human sexuality, Kinsey methodically collected sexual data. Both his research and his results shocked many Americans and demonstrated that sex was not something that was confined to the bedroom of married heterosexual couples. Kinsey found that 86 percent of males surveyed had had premarital intercourse, 37 percent had engaged in homosexual activities, and 40 percent had been involved in extramarital affairs. Nine out of ten men engaged in sexual practices that were punishable by law in various states. In essence, Kinsey’s study showed that public attitudes toward sex were hypocritical when compared with private actions. The public controversy generated by Kinsey’s 1948 report, as well as by the frank sexual references in 1951’s Catcher in the Rye, illuminated the conservative attitude of the era in which the novel is set and written.
From criticism and rebellion to the Beat movement
The conformity of the era generated a number of important criticisms from several disciplines. In sociology David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1953) criticized postwar Americans for their lack of strong inner values and for taking their cultural cues from mass society. William Whyte’s The Organization of Man (1956) attacked conformity, as did Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, which depicted worker anonymity.
On the literary scene, The Catcher in the Rye would be hailed as the desperate voice of an anguished and constrained generation. Holden, its main character, was portrayed as a lonely individual searching for meaning and truth in a world of phony behavior. At the time of the novel’s publication, however, Salinger had become an established writer from an elite background who wrote for his own social milieu. By the early 1950s, Salinger’s work was being published regularly in the New Yorker, a magazine noted for its appeal to the more educated and wealthy portions of American society. Just a few years later, however, a louder and more rebellious literary phenomenon had begun nipping at the heels of Salinger’s fame. With the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957, the Beats burst upon the scene as the social and intellectual rebels of the era. Influenced by jazz and Eastern mysticism, the early Beats—led informally by Kerouac
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and the poet Allen Ginsberg—advocated spiritual fulfillment by experiencing all of what life had to offer, perhaps most noticeably sex and illicit drugs. The Beats rejected the conservative material values espoused by others in their generation and pointed to intuition as being more important than reason. While Salinger was never associated with the movement, his writings represent some of the same disillusionment with society that would later characterize works by the more radical Beat writers.
Hollywood and the end of an era
The time span between the 1920s and the end of World War II marks the golden age of Hollywood. In this Californian movie capital, studios turned out hundreds of spectacular musicals and dramas each year, and the silver screen was home to larger-than-life stars. After the war, movie advertisements informed the public that new productions were bigger, better, and more intelligent than ever before. Yet Hollywood was in a state of panic and flux. Because of economic considerations, the new movies used ideas rather than large, glittering productions to draw crowds. Younger directors with smaller budgets created a variety of films between 1947 and 1950 that addressed social problems such as racism. Page 76 | Top of ArticleYet Hollywood, for the most part, treated these problems superficially. It tended to view the various problems as interchangeable. For example, directors would change the ethnicity of a character when adapting a book or play into a movie, hoping to increase sales by making the subject matter more appealing.
In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden’s older brother, D.B., is a writer who has moved to Hollywood to become famous. Throughout the novel, Holden, who obviously admires his sibling, refers to D.B. as a “sellout” for attempting to use his writing talent to earn money. Holden himself claims to hate movies, yet paradoxically knows a lot about them. Holden’s love-hate relationship with the cinema is probably loosely based on Salinger’s dual-edged experiences with the medium himself. A fan of movies from the 1940s with an “encyclopedic grasp of cine lore” (Hamilton, p. 107), Salinger had created many early pieces written purposefully with an eye toward Hollywood. In 1949 his short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” was made into a film called “My Foolish Heart.” The movie, released when Salinger was about halfway finished writing The Catcher in the Rye, was a success. Salinger hated the film, however, and was furious at Hollywood and possibly himself for succumbing to its temptations.
The Novel in Focus
Narrated from the perspective of Holden Caulfield, the novel’s cynical protagonist, The Catcher in the Rye details Holden’s disillusioned thoughts and actions after he has been kicked out of his third prep school. Holden opens the novel by vaguely referring to his current hospitalization, and proceeds to tell his story.
Holden first describes his last days at Pencey prep, a well-to-do academy located in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. A self-confessed terrific liar, Holden has flunked every subject except English because, according to Pencey officials, he refuses to apply himself. Holden says that his problem is that the school is full of phonies and snobs. He feels alienated, surrounded by people who exaggerate their own importance and who concern themselves with trivia. His primary acquaintances are Robert Ackley, whom Holden finds personally disgusting, and his roommate, Ward Stradlater. Mean-tempered and socially inept, Ackley never brushes his teeth and leaves his nail clippings all over Holden’s floor. Stradlater is a secret slob who thinks very highly of himself. On Holden’s last night at Pencey, Holden becomes depressed when Stradlater reveals he has a date with an old acquaintance of Holden’s. Despite this feeling, Holden agrees to write a descriptive English composition for Stradlater while he is out. When Holden describes his deceased brother Allie’s left-handed baseball mitt, Stradlater does not appreciate Holden’s creativity. “For Chrissake, Holden. This is about a goddam baseball glove.... You don’t do one damn thing the way you’re supposed to....” (The Catcher in the Rye, p. 53). Holden tears up the piece and leaves Pencey that night yelling, “Sleep tight, ya morons!” (The Catcher in the Rye, p. 68).
Holden rides a night train to New York, where his family lives. Instead of going home, however, he meanders the city for several days. He spends his first night hopping from one bar to another, desperately seeking some kind of communication. He strikes up unfulfilling conversations with various women, cabbies, and anyone else who might talk. He calls a girl he has never met, and becomes depressed after dancing with female tourists in the Lavender Room, a hotel lounge that refuses to serve him a drink. Back at his hotel, Holden unthinkingly agrees to accept the services of a prostitute, but is too depressed and scared to do anything except argue with her about the fee.
The next day, Holden sees a show with his old friend Sally. He feels that he is in love with her, but at the same time realizes that she is as constrained and fake as the people at Pencey. When Holden suggests that they elope together and escape from the confines of polite society, practical-minded Sally notes that they have all the time in the world to marry and travel, whereupon Holden insults her for her lack of imagination and insight:
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Open your ears. It’d be entirely different. We’d have to go downstairs in elevators with suitcases and stuff. We’d have to phone up everybody and tell ‘em good-by and send ’em postcards from hotels and all. And I’d be working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers, and playing bridge all the time, and going to the movies and seeing a lot of stupid shorts and coming attractions and newsreels. Newsreels. Christ almighty. There’s always a dumb horse race, and some dame breaking a bottle over a ship, and some chimpanzee riding a goddam bicycle with pants on. It wouldn’t be the same at all. You don’t see what I mean at all.
(The Catcher in the Rye, pp. 172-73)
That night, Holden gets drunk, and contemplates freezing to death in the park, then sneaks into his house to visit his younger sister. Holden cares a lot for his sister Phoebe, whom he describes as a terrific kid. When Phoebe discovers that Holden has been kicked out of school again, she demands to know why. Holden answers, “It was one of the worst schools I ever went to. It was full of phonies. And mean guys... they had this goddam secret fraternity that I was too yellow not to join.... God Phoebe! I can’t explain. I just didn’t like anything that was happening at Pencey” (The Catcher in the Rye, pp. 217-19). When Phoebe challenges him to name one thing that he would like to be, the only thing that comes to Holden’s mind is a catcher in the rye—in Holden’s mind, a person who keeps children from falling off a cliff as they play in rye fields.
Holden leaves to visit an old teacher named Mr. Antolini, a heavy drinker and an intellectual who recognizes Holden’s potential. Holden remembers Mr. Antolini as the only person decent enough to pick up James Castle, Holden’s colleague, after he committed suicide by jumping out the window at Pencey. Mr. Antolini invites Holden to spend the night on the couch. Holden awakes to find Mr. Antolini petting him on the head, thanks him for his hospitality, and leaves immediately, muttering about all the perverts he knows.
It is early morning, and Holden simply starts walking with the unshakable feeling that he might simply disappear. He prays to his dead brother, Allie, but doesn’t feel that the prayers are doing any good. “Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down, and nobody’d ever see me again” (The Catcher in the Rye, p. 256). For Holden, the only thing left to do is leave New York and head west. He drops Phoebe a note at school, telling her to meet him at the museum in order to say good-bye. Phoebe arrives, dragging a suitcase of clothes, and begs Holden to take her along. They fight, Phoebe cries, and they make up by spending the rest of the day at the zoo and riding the carousel. Holden promises her that he won’t run away and for the first time in days feels good.
The last pages of the novel reveal that Holden is recuperating in California. He simply says that he regrets having told so many people about his adventure, because now he rather misses the people he talked about, even people like Stradlater and Ackley. “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” (The Catcher in the Rye, p. 277).
Psychology and postwar society
Both at the beginning and the end of the novel, Holden mentions his hospitalization. He introduces himself and the story by commenting offhandedly, “I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy” (The Catcher in the Rye, p. 3). Holden then tells the tale but reminds the reader again in the last pages of the book that he is still hospitalized:
A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keeps asking me if I’m going to apply myself when I go back to school next September. It’s such a stupid question, in my opinion. I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it? The answer is, you don’t. I think I am, but how do I know? I swear it’s a stupid question.
(The Catcher in the Rye, p. 276)
Holden never makes it clear if he is mentally sick, physically ill, or emotionally unwell. Yet readers of his story realize that he is more emotionally unstable than anything else. Holden is fed up with what he perceives as a world of sham. Even at the end he does not fully accept conventional society, still railing against its “stupid questions.”
In any case, Holden is being psychoanalyzed. His inability to adjust and conform to societal expectations is construed as something of a mental illness, a perception typical of postwar culture. The psychological profession, especially clinical psychology, grew increasingly respected after World War II. Psychological treatment came to be publicly accepted as a way of changing or modifying human behavior, and the demands for such services increased greatly. The emphasis of the era on “belonging” and cultural conformity manifested itself in psychology as it did elsewhere during this era. Many professionals diagnosed deviants as mentally ill. People who fell outside conventional norms were sick; homosexuality, for example, was considered deviant and subsequently pathological. It was the job of psychologists to help readjust such nonconformists to societal norms.
Some theorists, however, challenged such practices. In 1953, psychoanalyst Robert Lindner attacked the therapeutic goal of adjusting people to society’s expectations as dangerous and false. Lindner accused psychologists and psychiatrists of misdiagnosing people who were unhappy Page 78 | Top of Articleas sick, when they were actually reacting against cultural conformity. He stated, “The goal of therapy... should not be conforming the patient to sick society but working to transform the negative protest and rebellion of the patient into positive expression of the rebellious urge” (Lindner in Leahey, p. 403).
Since the 1960s, J.D. Salinger has refused to grant an interview or speak to the press. Because of this, the sources for The Catcher in the Rye are difficult to determine except through speculation. Some events in Salinger’s life probably provided the mold for particular parts of the story. For example, like Holden, Salinger grew up in a wealthy family in New York City. Salinger also attended Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania, which most likely provided the model for Pencey. Specifically designed to prepare young men for the rigors of college rather than simply terminating their education at the high school level, these private and often expensive schools generally catered to the elite, highly educated, and wealthy segments of society. At Valley Forge, Salinger, like Holden, managed the fencing team, and apparently a student did jump out of the window during his studies there, just as a fellow schoolmate does in the novel. Salinger’s colleagues, however, do not remember him to be like Holden in the novel. They describe Salinger not as a discontented drop-out but rather as a shy, slightly sarcastic boy who wrote the words to the Valley Forge class song.
The Catcher in the Rye received almost instant popular and academic recognition. Published on July 16, 1951, the novel made the New York Times bestseller list within two weeks and remained there for almost thirty. Critical reviews, however, were mixed. Many critics recognized the work as extraordinary; the day it was published Nash K. Burger of the New York Times acclaimed it as “an unusually brilliant first novel,” while Paul Engle of the Chicago Tribune called it “engaging and believable” (Salzman, pp. 4-5). Many, however, found Holden Caulfield’s view of the world unstable, frightening, and vaguely threatening. While they praised Salinger’s ability, they condemned the novel as predictable, boring, or immoral, and did not recommend its distribution. T. Morris Longstreth, for example, appeared to personally like the novel, but declared that it was not fit for children to read. Referring to Holden, Longstreth writes, “Fortunately, there cannot be many of him yet. But one fears that a book like this given wide circulation may multiply his kind—as too easily happens when immorality and perversion are recounted by writers of talent whose work is countenanced in the name of art or good intention” (Longstreth in Bloom, p. 6).
The concerns of some critics were echoed throughout the country by librarians, parents, and school boards as the novel found its way into the curricula. Some people complained that the novel’s language was crude and obscene, and that the book contained disgraceful episodes to which children should not be exposed. Consequently, The Catcher in the Rye was banned in many libraries throughout the country. Teachers in California, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma were reprimanded or fired for assigning the novel to students. In 1973 the novel would be designated in the American School Board Journal as one of the most widely censored books in the United States.
For More Information
Bloom, Harold, ed. Holden Caulfield. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
Cookson, Peter W., Jr., and Caroline Hodges Persell. Preparing for Power: America’s Elite Boarding Schools. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
Hamilton, Ian. In Search of J. D. Salinger. New York: Random House, 1988.
Leahey, Thomas Hardy. A History of Psychology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1987.
Nash, Gary B., et al. The American People. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951.
Salzman, Jack, ed. New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.