This week: J.D. Salinger’sThe Catcher in the Rye

Last week, a friend suggested I start reviewing some of the most famous banned or censored books ever published, novels whose controversial elements have elevated them into lasting fame. One of the first books that came to my mind–it was also suggested to me by a follower on Twitter–was J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. According to the American Library Association, this novel was the 10th most challenged in the U.S. in the 1990s and the 6th most challenged of 2009. In this post and in future ones covering a frequently banned or challenged book, I will look at the story itself, why it is so controversial, and how the book’s (in)famous nature plays into whether you should dust it off. 

      The Catcher in the Rye begins and ends with a loose framing narrative: a teenage boy named Holden Caulfield is in a mental health institution. In between those two points, Holden describes how his life began to fall apart the previous Christmas. His New York boarding school throws him out. He clashes with his soon-to-be-gone classmates. Traveling to New York City, he calls up a prostitute to his hotel room, but he only ends up wanting to talk to her. A bewildering series of dances and drinks with friends and “phonies” alike further Holden’s bitterness. He concludes that his only hope is to talk to his little sister Phoebe, and his encounter with her at a carousel leads to a surprise ending, as Holden realizes he wants to be a “catcher in the rye” (taken from a poem by Robert Burns) saving children from losing their carefree nature as they enter adulthood.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

      Although intended for an adult audience, The Catcher in the Rye struck a chord with many teens and young adults in the 1950s as they identified with the (perhaps stereotypical) “angst” Holden goes through. As a result, Salinger’s novel has become a staple of assigned readings in American middle and high schools. The sexual content, frequent language, and general air of teenage rebelliousness pervading this novel has spurred countless challenges to its place in schools and libraries.

When I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time at age sixteen, though, I felt its entire appeal came from this adolescent anger and frustration, as well as Holden’s willingness to show the society as it is, which, it turns out, isn’t pretty and rather “phony.” Even though its flaws–the slang Holden employs can be off-putting, and at the end of the day, he is a whiny, spoiled kid–become apparent the older a reader is, Salinger’s work is a must-read for any serious reader, if only for the cultural bombshell it made in the 1950s and continues to make down the generations. Of course, a major irony that goes along with all controversial books is that attempts to censor The Catcher in the Rye fuel more demand for reading it.

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