The Catcher in the Rye: A Novel by J.D. Salinger (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. 214 pp)
Born in New York City in 1919, J.D. Salinger is famously known for his novel The Catcher in the Rye written in 1951. Although Salinger published a few works before and after this novel, the success of it led him to a reclusive lifestyle. His last public interview was granted in 1980. Salinger is also noteworthy for the legal battles he encountered around unauthorized biographies written about him. Salinger died of natural causes in January 2010.
Sometimes I Feel Like Holden Caulfield
The Catcher in the Rye marks the beginning of my pursuit to read books of the 20th century canon which I missed in high school. While reading this book, I could not help but imagine how the main character, Holden Caulfield, would look and act in the 21st century. He was born into privilege yet he flunks out of numerous private schools. Additionally, his lack of respect for authority and use of slang reminds me somewhat of Jamie Kennedy’s rich, hip-hop-white-boy character in Malibu’s Most Wanted.
Salinger’s novel begins with Holden learning of his expulsion from yet another school for wretched grades. Even though he pretends not to care about this bad news, the subsequent manner in which he treats his schoolmates betrays his regret and despair for ruining another opportunity. Holden’s venomous nature is on display as he packs his belongings and leaves the school dormitories for the last time:
“When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don’t know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, “Sleep tight, ya morons!” I’ll bet I woke up every bastard on the whole floor. Then I got the hell out. Some stupid guy had thrown peanut shells all over the stairs, and I damn near broke my crazy neck” (52).
In turn, this expulsion provides Holden with the opportunity to explore New York for a few days before he is due home for Christmas break.
What It Means to Grow Up
With a modest sum of money, Holden explores Manhattan. From seedy hotels and bars to jazz clubs and the American Museum of Natural History, Caulfield meets shady, amusing, and original characters. Despite these adventures, Holden feels the stinging pain of loneliness and the daunting question of what he will do with the rest of his life. On one hand, his machismo leads him to proclaim,
“I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will” (141).
Holden clearly desires to take life by the horns and defeat it. Yet he also realizes that he wants to help others even if they are all “phony,” the most popular phrase he attributes to the rest of the world. This position is vividly made clear when Holden confides to his sister,
“Anyway, 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’d 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. I know it’s crazy” (173).
In revealing his anxieties in this section, Holden’s true intentions become known. Yes, he is an immature punk most of the time; he flunks out of school, and speaks vulgarly. But his concern ultimately lies with the safety and success of others. The Catcher in the Rye is a classic coming-of-age tale that contains layers of intrigue and I wholeheartedly understand its inclusion in the 20th century literary canon. I recommend reading this book if you have yet to experience the character of Mr. Caulfield.