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.
From the novel’s first ironic sentence contrasting Holden with Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Salinger lets his reader know his story has a much more sophisticated literary background than the narrator’s youthful voice would indicate. Throughout the novel Holden refers to famous writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Isak Dinesen, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, and William Shakespeare. Often used as school texts, the books and plays of these writers also express Themes that help explain Holden Caulfield’s alienation. Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms (1929) was a testament of an earlier American wartime generation disillusioned by the folly of an adult society that led to the loss of millions of lives in World War I.
Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) presents a romantic young American who becomes involved in bootlegging liquor during the American Prohibition era of the 1920s. Fitzgerald’s hero, Jay Gatsby, may be for Holden a model of the perfectionist-idealist who dares to challenge social conventions and to attempt to defeat the vulgar reality he is born into.
The Shakespearean references in the book are also illuminating. Romeo and Juliet, like Holden, dare to defy adult conventions and challenge, for romantic love, the hatreds of adults. Hamlet is a deeply troubled young man who faces moral dilemmas and exhibits strange behavior that, like Holden’s, leads people around him to think he is abnormal, even mad.
Holden never directly mentions the book most relevant to his situation, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884). Like Huck, Holden is a sort of runaway able to observe the cruelty, folly, and deceptions of an adult society that exploits other human beings. Both Characters break the taboos of conventional morality, such as those against cursing, to champion far more complex and abstract moral principles such as decency, respect for the spiritual aspects of humankind, aesthetic beauty, and childlike innocence. Huck Finn defies the conventional religion of his time, which accommodates human slavery. Holden also expresses a religious sensibility in a way, longing for the biblical Eden where human consciousness has not fallen. Unlike Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, in twentieth-century America, has no frontier to which he can escape from a hypocritical modern world of concrete and steel.