“The Catcher in the Rye”: Entertaining, Distressing, Irrelevant?

Plot Summary: Published in 1951, “The Catcher in the Rye” tells the story of a troubled young man’s mental breakdown after he is kicked out of an elite boarding school due to his failing grades.  

Many moons ago, I remember reading “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger. At the time, I loved the main character Holden Caufield’s irreverence and willingness to call out hypocrites. I was greatly amused by his antics and so pleased when he rallied hard against convention, damn the consequences! I was both shocked and intrigued upon learning that the book was one of the most banned in the United States from its first publication through the early nineteen eighties. Apparently, the foul language (tame by today’s standards), discussions of sex and descriptions of smoking and drinking were considered potentially damaging to the adolescent and young adult psyche. Today this a quaint notion, especially considering the doomed vampire romances, killing games and revenge suicide stories that teens now seem to gravitate towards. 

Upon my first reading of “The Catcher in the Rye”, Holden’s behavior did not seem remotely controversial to my teenage brain. At the time, I thought he was someone to emulate and celebrate. What strength! What independence! What gumption! Sure, he bolted from elite prep school and drunkenly frolicked for a few nights across New York City at age sixteen. It was certainly not the soundest course of action for a teenager, but this was his territory. Holden grew up in New York City. He knew the landscape – where to go, what to avoid and acted (mostly) accordingly. When in Rome… 

I had a very different reaction re-reading “The Catcher in the Rye” as an adult. Holden, while still intelligent, insightful and often hilarious – is clearly depressed and possibly suicidal. I read his drunken, almost dreamlike journey through the city with increasing alarm. Maybe that comes from my now being a parent. Or maybe as a society we are better able to recognize a young person in serious distress. Certainly, many of the characters that Holden interacts with note his peculiarity. However, few know what to make of it and all are ill equipped to manage. Is this any surprise? “The Catcher in the Rye” was first published in the early 1950s, a time not known for being sympathetic to or even acknowledging mental illness, particularly among young men. 

Much has been written about his book and its elusive author. What can I really add? I suppose only this – despite my changing perspective, I still loved this book. Holden is a tragic figure, but such a compelling one and worth our consideration. He is tragic because despite making it through the novel (spoiler!), I cannot imagine a very bright future for him. He is fortunate enough to always have the support of a wealthy family, meaning he will at least be financially secure. I suspect his mental state will deteriorate over time and he will continue to self-medicate with alcohol and other destructive behaviors. There may be brief periods of clarity and productivity, but those would be infrequent, as Holden travels willingly down the road of self-annihilation. I am not saying I think Holden would necessarily take his own life, but an early death due to alcoholism seems a definite possibility.  

Regardless of my imagined end, Holden’s story is also representative of a particular time and place – mid twentieth century New York, privileged and, yes, white. I suppose that is why I was incensed when I came across an article questioning whether “The Catcher in the Rye” is still relevant today. I will let others argue that specific question but to me it is moot.  Do we read “Pride and Prejudice”, “Anna Karenina”, or “Moby Dick” because they are relevant today? Personally, I read fiction to be transported, sometimes to a different universe through fantasy or science fiction but also to another place and time. To better understand ourselves and our world, it is important to know where we came from, how far we have advanced, and how much further we still need to go as a society. Fiction, particularly some of the time-tested literary classics, can help us do that.  

I supposed some might view “The Catcher in the Rye” as an irrelevant story of a spoiled, rich kid going off the deep end. I look at the story as an examination of a troubled adolescent with buried trauma, no outlet for his feelings and no conception of why he feels numb. Is there not something universal in that struggle? If nothing else, Holden’s journey is quite a ride. Do not deprive yourself.  

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