J. D. Salinger’s seminal The Catcher in the Rye has a bit of a reputation – beloved of all teenage boys with parental issues and bad hair, Catcher is something you’re meant to grow out of, like My Chemical Romance or nitrous oxide.
This reputation is helped neither by the fact that Salinger withdrew to a house in Cornish, in upstate New Hampshire, unable to cope with the mania that people brought to his book, and that Mark Chapman presented his copy to the police after he shot John Lennon. Now, 60 years on, The Catcher in the Rye, and what the novel might imply, is as important as ever.
But this is a reputation which Catcher only partly deserves. Holden Caulfield isn’t just a whiney teenage boy with a penchant for self-pity, he’s an expertly drawn character – grief struck at the death of his brother and traumatised by the harsh realities of the adult world. What makes Catcher so sad is that Holden is spectacularly unable to vocalise any of the problems that plague him. He admits late on in the novel the extent of the sexual abuse he’s suffered, without putting into words exactly what it is he’s had to go through: “That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it.” Yet he is totally unable to recognise why he does what he does. Following the death of his brother Allie, he breaks all the windows in his garage “just for the hell of it”.
In a modern environment defined by economic and social uncertainty, the image of Holden, cut adrift and lost, has a kind of sad relevance. JD Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, six years after the end of the Second World War, in which he fought, on D Day and in the Battle of the Bulge.
Salinger saw more combat than Vonnegut and Heller combined, but he writes a novel with no explicit reference to the war. Yet the war influences this novel intensely – Salinger must have felt that the consumerist and capitalist world to which he was returning had been irreparably changed and he must, like Holden, have constantly questioned his place in it. War does this to people and societies. A. J. P. Taylor wrote that the 20th century begun not in 1900 but on the first day of the Somme. Salinger might have similarly have felt that his society had lost its innocence.
Catcher is certainly a novel obsessed with childhood and its end. The Catcher in the Rye is the one root from which teen literature has sprung. But more than that, it is a novel that encapsulates something central about our modern world. We live in uncertain times, and Catcher depicts someone trying, through it all, to cope.