Four years ago on the 27th of January, J.D. Salinger died in his home at Cornish, New Hampshire, having lived to the ripe old age of 91 years. In his life time, he was famously known for his novel The Catcher in the Rye (Catcher), which was considered one of the prominent novels of the 20th century by Time but, in many of the same ways, has been widely challenged by censoring boards across the globe who view its message as more unorthodox and have seen it as so since it was first published in 1951. Perhaps its popularity can be attributed to the fact that it has been deemed so controversial. In fact, there are many dialogues happening to this day that attempt to take Catcher off of school reading lists. The American Library Association (ALA) even ranks the novel as one of the most censored books of the 20th century, but why? Where does the controversy exist? I decided to reread Catcher for another look at what makes this book as widely discussed and timeless as it is, even four years after Salinger’s death. In knowing about Catcher and its widely volatile nature amongst parents, I find it safe to say that this book is widely misunderstood by anyone who seeks to ban it.
First Impression of Catcher
The book is about Holden Caulfield, our protagonist who is an antihero of sorts, a teenager who seems to find trouble wherever he goes. Throughout the novel, Caulfield offers numerous insights into the world of 1950s America. Narrating his own personal accounts, we depend on him to describe, often with honest brutality, the way life is for him, but this is somewhat problematic for the reader, especially when he tells us early on in the novel that he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” (Salinger 16). I was on my guard, waiting for him to tell me that it was all made up, and that I had been suckered into reading about his Christmas break from school that year; however, this revelation never came, and I was left to ponder his reliability as a narrator, judging him and his actions along the way.
Yet, this is not what makes Catcher a controversial book. The controversy seems to lie on everything one finds along the surface of the novel. In fact, a long list of reasons for all the censoring boards across the country that have banned Catcher from being read by their schools has been published in Robert Doyle’s book, Banned Books: Challenging our Freedom to Read, and may be found on the ALA’s website. Reasons often include the typical buzzwords, such as excessive or unacceptable sexual references and profanity; vulgar language; “anything dealing with the occult;” obscene, premarital sex, alcohol abuse and prostitution; statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled; for it being “anti-white” and “obscene;” for its “lurid passages about sex;” for being centered around negative activity; for its use of the ‘F’ word; for strong sexual situations; and a plethora of other reasons. One source even goes as far as to challenge the book for being “blasphemous and undermin[ing] morality,” while another disgruntled parent called it a “filthy, filthy book” (qtd. in Banned and/or Challenged Books). With each of these “reasons” spanning from parents in towns like Marysville, California, to places as far away as Savannah, Georgia, it is clear that this book causes friction when it is made out to be required reading in high school English classes. Just from the rough sketch made out above, it is easy to see what makes Catcher appear as a “bad” book for adolescents to be influenced by.
Language and vulgarity, sexually explicit content and prostitution, and lastly, morality and Godlessness seem to make up the general consensus for why parents despise this book so much, but are these solid grounds to stand on for removing a book entirely from a school’s curriculum, especially when these have no bearing on what the book is really about? Is there nothing that can be learned from it, these “vulgarities” serving merely as reasons for parents to jump on the bandwagon of censorship? This book is clearly not just about teenage rebellion and adolescence struggling to find its own identity; rather, it is about society and learning our place in it. As one scholar wrote, “Catcher in the Rye captured the zeitgeist, a particular way of looking at the world we share” (qtd. in “Catcher in the Rye Author”). In almost every way, this book is about the status quo and applies just as much to today’s society as it did to society of the 1950s.
A Deeper Look at Catcher
While offensive language is seemingly noticeable throughout the novel, it should be stated for the record that the profanity we read actually plays a significant role in understanding Caulfield. “Goddam” is the strongest, and most frequently, used expression in the whole book, and it is used quite regularly, I will confess. In fact, the word is used 12 times over two pages, let alone the rest of the book, but this is only because at this particular point he is upset with Jane Gallagher, a girl he secretly admires, for dating someone whom he considers a “phonie.” This emotional outburst of cursing is nothing new in the way of profanities. In fact, John Nicholas Beffel writes about “the lost art of profanity” in a 1925 column for The Nation, claiming that “nobody has a profane vocabulary any more, there is no variety in oaths, nothing unique, no artistry, no sparkle. Everybody uses the same words in swearing. This indisputable fact is of course chargeable to the universal trend toward standardization in the United States…Originality faces starvation. Artists get no encouragement. Emotion is at a low ebb. Passion is gone from us” (270). When it is put this way, the swearing Caulfield does in the book becomes somewhat relative and heartless, if what Beffel is saying is true about the “old-time brimstone language” of yesterday, particularly when we consider Caulfield’s profane, but limited, use of vocabulary in a modern context. This book’s use of profanity, in all aspects, is relatively mild to what people generally hear throughout the media, especially when it is compared to how vulgar and sexist the music industry is today — a form of expression that has far more influence over modern audiences than the book Catcher has. Maybe profanity is making a come-back but not within the context of this book.
When we check language and vulgarity off of the list, we find strong sexually explicit content to be next among the reasons for finding this book offensive. After all, what kind of book about adolescent rebellion would you have if it didn’t include a few points about the self-indulgent, sexually impulsive tendencies that teenage boys often experience? Perhaps we forget in his dialogue that Caulfield is only 16 years old. It’s easy to do, actually, when you consider his mannerisms and outlooks read more like the author’s, the musings of a 32 year old man with a message to make. To be disgruntled over the sexually explicit content of this book is to really do the book an injustice, as it’s not about Caulfield’s urges at all, but how he deals with them. Sure, he tells the bellhop on his way back up to his room that he’s interested in a “lil’ tail” when he’s asked, but he tells us that, “I was a little nervous. I was starting to feel pretty sexy and all, but I was a little nervous anyway. If you want to know the truth, I’m a virgin. I really am” (Salinger 92). He then continues to explain to us why. “The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it…. I keep stopping. The trouble is, I get to feeling sorry for them” (92). This is not the kind of dialogue we would expect from a lustful teenager, but it is one example of the inner turmoil Caulfield has when trying to come to terms with what he feels are his shortcomings. When Sunny, the prostitute, arrives to his room, his nervousness for losing his virginity amounts to nothing that parents should be concerned over in the long run. He only ends up feeling sorry for her in the end: “It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it [her dress] up. I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell — I don’t know why exactly” (96). He feels sorry for people like this all throughout the book, which reveals a lot about his overall demeanor.
In fact, we learn a lot about his personal beliefs in this way. Take, for instance, his beliefs in God. It’s easy to recognize where a lot of the controversy comes into play with this aspect of the book. Many of the censors argue that the book is grounded with immoral content, with Godlessness, yet the pity he feels for the prostitute in the earlier paragraph shows that he isn’t an immoral character. He is actually distraught over many things that happen over the course of the story. At one point, Caulfield even openly reveals his personal beliefs to the reader. He tells us, “In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible” (Salinger 99). To come forward openly with his beliefs like this for the sake of continuity in the story immediately sets him apart from the sympathy of the reader who may disagree with him. His atheism defines him, establishing what many opponents of this book believe to be immoral and misguided. At the same time, we as readers should be careful not to misjudge him. He is not an immoral character. He attracts our sympathies on several occasions: first, his curiosity as a teenage boy for the prostitute and his plea for conversation over sex; secondly, the two nuns he meets while having breakfast at the diner and his conversation with one of them about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; and lastly, his dialogue with old Sally at the Radio City Ice-skating rink. All of these scenarios reveal information about Caulfield that require us to look at him as more than just a rebelling teen, but as someone who is struggling to find himself in the world around him, maybe even Salinger himself.
A Deeper Look at Caulfield
Taking a closer look at the dialogue he shares with Sally shows us where the real issues in the novel begin to emerge. After skating with old Sally on the ice — “there were at least a couple of hundred rubbernecks that didn’t have anything better to do than stand around and watch everybody falling all over themselves” (Salinger 129) — Caulfield pulls Sally off for a cigarette and a coke, where he tells her a lot about the turmoil that seems to bother him. This is a revealing moment for us, the readers, as it offers some insight into the reasons why he calls everyone a “phony,” a word he uses all throughout the book to describe people he meets. Everyone is a phony to Caulfield, even Sally, the girl sitting across from him, listening to him, his excitement for finally finding someone he can talk to. This is the first point in the whole book that he tells someone other than us, the readers, that he sees the world full of “phonies,” or people who he feels are otherwise superficial, fake or shallow. He asks Sally, “Did you ever get fed up? I mean did you ever get scared that everything was going to go lousy unless you did something? I mean do you like school, and all that stuff?” Her reply — “It’s a terrific bore (original emphasis)” (130). He continues:
“You ought to go to a boys’ school sometime. Try it sometime, it’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques” (131).
He is opening up to her, bestowing his trust and his personal opinions upon her, because he wants her to take a risk with him. To leave everything behind and to start a new life, with no obligations or ties to anything or anyone but themselves. He tries to convince her of what he sees all around him, but Sally still wants to experience life as it’s expected of her, “college… and marriage and all” (Salinger 133). In the end, she is just a girl who knows nothing and cares nothing — “you could tell she wanted me to change the damn subject” (131) — for Caulfield’s disgruntled views toward society. She fails to see what he wants from her, suggesting that it is not he who has lost sight of what’s good for him, rather that society has become a dull and drab existence of status symbols and “phony” appeasement, something that makes him “depressed as hell” (133). Caulfield is the type of character who longs for genuine experiences, genuine emotions, and he realizes by the end of the chapter that he hasn’t found them with old Sally, the girl he exposes his true feelings to — and he laughs at her: “The whole thing was sort of funny, in a way, if you thought about it, and all of a sudden I did something I shouldn’t have, I laughed. And I have one of these very loud, stupid laughs” (134). This is the source of his angst — growing up to fulfill the status quo. He wants to break away from it by any means that he can.
We detect his longing for honest and unadulterated people at several points throughout the novel too. He admires the people he meets in his life who are genuine, authentic and true to themselves. The feelings he has for Jane, for example, tell us that “all you knew was, you were happy. You really were” (Salinger 79). Everyone else depresses him. Sadly, Jane is the one person he can’t share these feelings with. He feels the same way for his deceased brother, Allie, who died from leukemia at an earlier point in Caulfield’s life, which explains a lot about his inner-turmoil and anguish. Allie’s death, after all, was a tragic moment for him to deal with: “I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them [his parents]. I really don’t. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it” (39). Caulfield is only three years older as he’s telling the story of Catcher, so it’s a strong possibility that his feelings for the loss of his brother are a strong source of his angst toward society.
He can’t look to his parents for help with this inner conflict, either, as he feels his father represents the very thing he’s disgruntled with — the material world around him, the status quo. “What I don’t spend, I lose. Half the time I sort of even forget to pick up my change, at restaurants and night clubs and all. It drives my parents crazy. You can’t blame them. My father’s quite wealthy, though. I don’t know how much he makes… but I imagine quite a lot. He’s a corporation lawyer” (107). His well-to-do parents are one reason for this blame game he puts himself through and how he rationalizes his own behavior when he’s up to no good. In fact, he feels like a source of shame to his parents, especially with the circumstances surrounding his expulsion from school. “She [his mother] hasn’t felt too healthy since my brother Allie died. She’s very nervous. That’s another reason why I hated like hell for her to know I got the ax again” (107). One review written in an editorial for Life said that Holden Caulfield “is a misfit, but he is no freak; and his virtues and vices are peculiar to his generation. Holden, for example, is no rebel; he willingly accepts the blame for his own failures. But while he does not dispute ‘the system’ he mentally punishes the many individuals who elicit his favorite adjective, ‘phony'” (“A Generation of Esthetes?” 96). And punish them he does — he lets us know that these phonies are all about possessions and materialism, while he himself is suffering from loss. In many ways, he is no better. Are these not “virtues and vices” that our present generation of youth could learn from? To owe up to your own actions? To be responsible for yourself?
Caulfield is a character with many flaws, and this is what makes him the widely discussed fictional character that he is. It isn’t that he represents adolescent rebellion against all parents; to think this is to read the book the wrong way, to scream “CENSOR!” at the first profane word he uses, and to brand it an icon of the unruly. On the contrary, Catcher is a book with a deeply embedded message about the status quo and the materialistic ways society drives us to fulfill them. It is a coming-of-age novel about the struggles of finding our identities amongst a culture saturated with forceful impressions and advertisements that want you only to talk about their products for the sake of more sales. We are defined by the products we buy, and Caulfield (moreover Salinger) realizes this. It is a novel about identifying who we are and where we should be going. Stephen Metcalf tells us in a tribute he wrote for Salinger shortly after his death in the e-zine, Slate, what Catcher meant for him: “Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I hit adolescence only to discover my autobiography had already been written; plagiarized, in fact, by a man named J.D. Salinger who, in appropriating to himself my inner mass of pain and confusion, had given me the unlikely name of ‘Holden Caulfield.'” Any sensible person who reaches the conclusion of the book without jumping on the censoring bandwagon probably feels the same way. How can a book about teenage rebellion that has been dedicated to the author’s own mother, for whatever reasons therein may lie, be anything other than an apology for his own misbehavior as a teen? If he was anything like myself, or Stephen Metcalf, or even you, sensible reader, then this book speaks about nothing more than being a teenager and fitting in. We can all call ourselves ‘Holden Caulfield’ in this way, so Catcher is only as controversial as you or I.
“A Generation of Esthetes?” [Editorial]. Life. Time, Inc. 26 Nov. 1951. Google Books. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.
“Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.” ALA.org. American Library Association, Banned and Challenged Books, 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.
Beffel, John Nicholas. “The Lost Art Of Profanity.” Nation 123.3194 (1926): 270-272. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Jan. 2013
“‘Catcher in the Rye’ Author Leaves Behind Tales of Teen Angst.” PBS.org. Newshour, extra. MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, 29 Jan. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.
Metcalf, Stephen. “Salinger’s Genius.” Slate. The Slate Group, 28 Jan. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Print.