- The Catcher in the Rye is J.D. Salinger’s only published full-length novel.
- Around 250,000 copies are sold each year, with 65 million copies sold total.
- According to Modern Language Review Journal, the novel was the most censored book in high schools and libraries between 1961 and 1982.
- The novel has influenced notorious criminals (Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr.) as well as former presidents. George H.W. Bush said it was one of the books that inspired him.
- Sean Connery’s reclusive character in the movie Finding Forrester was loosely based on The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger.
This is the first time I’ve ever read The Catcher in the Rye. How is it that a 34-year-old writer with an English degree has never read one of the classics of American Literature? I don’t know. It’s shameful, really. That’s why I thought I’d start this 101 book journey by reading this Salinger classic.
Published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most controversial and most-censored novels of all time. The controversy around the book is for a couple of reasons:
First, crazy people love it. John Lennon’s murderer—Mark David Chapman—was fascinated with the book. A copy of the novel was found in his possession the night he shot John Lennon—with the words “This is my statement” and Holden’s name written inside the book. John Hinckley Jr. was also a big fan. Police found the novel in his hotel room after his assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.
Second, parents of teenagers historically hate it. It’s a book about a vagabond, rebellious, drinking and smoking 16-year-old boy, Holden Caulfield, who goes on a three-day romp through New York City after he is kicked out of an elite prep school. Since the protagonist is a teenager, teenagers would naturally be drawn to the book.
Until recently, though, when teachers assigned the book as school reading, all hell would break loose. That’s mainly because the language in the novel makes The Sopranos look like an episode of Barney. For a book published 60 years ago, that’s saying something.
The book is a quick, easy read. Holden narrates in a casual, stream-of-consciousness style, which adds to the authenticity of his character. He’s a teenager, and he narrates like a teenager.
Teenage angst. Loneliness. Relationship frustration. The no-man’s land that lies between childhood and adulthood. These are the themes of Salinger’s novel.
The Catcher in the Rye is punk rock in novel form. As a Generation Xer, the book feels almost like I’m reading through a Nirvana album—which makes it easy to understand how it’s been so successful through multiple generations. It’s timeless. Really, Salinger’s novel was punk rock before punk rock.
And what teenager hasn’t felt like Holden Caulfield? Holden is a teenager stuck between the authenticity of childhood and the “phoniness” of adulthood. He’s a rebellious kid with the mouth of a sailor and the propensity for dropping GD in every other sentence. He’s also holding onto his childhood—his favorite person in the world is his younger sister, Phoebe—while finding fault in almost every adult he encounters.
He reminds me of the person who is quick to point out the faults of others but never sees anything wrong with himself. For instance, he repeatedly points out the fakeness of other people (his date’s ex-boyfriend, his teachers, and adults in general), but he also admits to being a fabulous liar and seems overly concerned with his appearance (e.g. the orange hunter’s hat).
But that’s the beauty of the novel: Salinger wrote Holden’s character in such a way that he is always true to the complex nature of himself—an immature teenager trying to find his way in a fast-moving world (both literally and figuratively)—with all of his contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisy in tow.
The Meaning: I kept waiting on the significance of the term “The Catcher in the Rye.” Holden explains it in Chapter 22. In short, he’d love to save kids from the edge of a cliff that is adulthood.
I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.
Highlight: I loved this bit of insight from Holden as he was getting ready to leave Pencey Prep after getting kicked out because of grades. Profound stuff, I thought. Do you ever regret not being able to tell a person—or, in this case, a place—goodbye?
What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of a good-by. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse.
Lowlight: The fact that The Catcher in the Rye was J.D. Salinger’s only published full-length novel. He did publish many short stories and novellas, but he spent his last 50 years in near total seclusion from the rest of the world. This brings up the question: When you have a talent like Salinger, do you have a responsibility to share that talent with others?
Memorable Line: “All morons hate it when you call them a moron.” –Holden Caulfield
Final Thoughts: The Catcher in the Rye is a classic of modern American literature. If you want to consider yourself “well read,” you’ve got to read it—which means I wasn’t well read until a few days ago.
Up Next: To Kill a Mockingbird
Have you read The Catcher in the Rye? If so, what are your thoughts?