Jerome David Salinger was born on January 1, 1919, in New York City, the second child of Sol and Miriam Jillich Salinger. His father, of European Jewish ancestry, became very successful during the 1930s importing hams and cheeses from Europe. Salinger’s mother, of Scottish descent, may have been an actress and may have influenced her son who, in his youth, flirted with the idea of acting as well as writing for the stage and films. From 1934 to 1936, Salinger attended Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, a half-hour from Philadelphia in the exclusive “Main Line” suburbs, where he first began writing at the age of fifteen.
The Catcher in the Rye introduces Holden Caulfield, who ranks with Huckleberry Finn among the most celebrated adolescent heroes in American literary history. Indeed, the book is a pleasure to read: verbally witty, sardonic, ironic, sometimes sad and poignant, and insightful of young adults and the dilemmas sensitive people face in modern society. The sustained tone and characterization are a fine literary achievement, and the encounters of an adolescent boy unable to adapt to 1950s metropolitan New York upper-class society, commercial business, and exclusive schools occasionally provide uproarious humor. A memorable book with a memorable hero, The Catcher in the Rye is of major importance to post-World War II American history as well as to young adult readers.
The plot of this novel, set soon after the end of World War II, is relatively spare. Holden Caulfield has been expelled from a private prep school, Pencey, and his leave-taking opens the novel. In preparing to leave, Holden sardonically comments on the boorishness of his classmates and the “phony” behavior of students and adults alike. Holden cannot communicate his alienation to teachers or counselors and habitually deflects conversations with them by telling lies, particularly ones he knows they want to hear.
As he roams about the city, Holden encounters his brother’s old friends, calls strangers to whom friends have referred him, mixes in a hotel bar, and invites a prostitute into his hotel room, only to be shaken down by her pimp. He arranges a date to a theater performance with an old girlfriend, Sally Hayes, and the evening ends in a fight over his plea for her to run away with him to the Vermont wilderness.
If The Catcher in the Rye merely detailed the awkwardness of a young adult growing up, it would still be valuable. But Holden’s periodic allusions to his favorite authors and books, his often humorous and consciously unsophisticated analyses of those books and writers, and the novel’s carefully ironic imitation of several powerful literary traditions help explain why Salinger’s book is also a major work of American literature, closely studied by scholars and critics.
The Catcher in the Rye has been charged with three major failings: excessive and unrealistic use of foul language; its obsession with a character whose anxiety and alienation are not objectively valid; and social criticism so unrelenting, so evident of distaste for the modern world, that it borders on misanthropy, the hatred of humankind itself.
1. Holden constantly uses the word “phony” to describe people, events, and popular culture such as movies. What does he mean by this word and what does it indicate about his values?
1. Compare and Contrast Holden and Huckleberry Finn. How does their adolescent inexperience permit their creators, Salinger and Mark Twain, to assert moral values?
Salinger’s other important books, all of which were published after The Catcher in the Rye, deal with a more extensive family than Holden’s: the Glass family. But these works can all be viewed as more sophisticated, philosophical explorations of the concerns and Themes first raised in The Catcher in the Rye. In Nine Stories, Salinger introduces the Glass family and suggests the profound spiritual disillusionment of Western artists that resulted from the Great Depression and World War II. Franny and Zooey describes the youngest members of this family and reiterates Salinger’s sharp criticism of contemporary society, pseudo-intellectuals, and the East Coast academic and literary culture. The character of Franny dramatizes a theme Salinger spent most of the 1950s exploring: the conflict between alienation from a world the European existentialist philosophers described as meaningless and without religious certitude, and a neo-mystical, religious psychology that Franny exhibits in her desire to escape that world. Salinger suggests that mysticism and a search for perfection, which Franny absorbs from her brilliant but suicidal older brother Seymour, is an insufficient solution to the condition of modern humankind. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction portray Seymour as a visionary seer and seeker after Eastern religious insight who is so wounded by the world and frustrated by his inability to find perfect consciousness in its squalid reality that he cannot find peace. Salinger’s later fiction, scholars persuasively argue, is deeply philosophical and central to expressing the spiritual and psychological anxiety of artists and intellectuals in the post-World War II decades.