Mar 202013

Catcher in the Ryeby J. D. Salinger, seems to be one of those books one either loves or hates. Ostensibly the sory of one bored, directionless rich kid’s sojourn in New York, this short novel presaged the counterculture of the 1960s by over a decade, and arguably fired the imagination of an entire generation of post-war Americans like no other novel since. The reclusiveness of the author, and its being found in the effects of two high-profile American assassins, have merely raised public awareness of the book and enhanced the reputation surrounding it. People either despise its antihero or praise its carefully observed portrait of youthful alienation. Whatever your opinion, once you’ve read it, you always *have* an opinion.


The first-person narrative of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist ofCatcherbegins as he is expelled from Pencey Prep, a fictional preparatory school not unlike the one Salinger himself attended in his youth. He ignores the paternal advice of one of his teachers, gets into a fight with his roommate and departs for New York in the middle of the night. Not wanting to return to his own family he books himself into a cheap hotel, and has varying encounters with three tourists, a prostitute (and her pimp) and generally wanders around for the next few days in a fog of loneliness, self-pity and a drunken haze. He sneaks into his parentsapartment while they are away, in order to see his little sister Phoebe, for whom he has an idealized affection not unlike that of Travis Bickle for Iris, or Jake la Motta for Vickie (though she seems to have a similarly naive view of him at times). A key sequence takes place when Holden tells her about a fantasy he has in which he saves children running through a rye fieldhence the title of the novelwhich points up his immaturity and childish view of the world.

After leaving Phoebe, Holden visits a much-admired former teacher of his, Mr. Antolini. Mr. Antolini is another central figure in Holden’s journey, the one who dispels his grandiose fantasies by observing that it is the stronger man who lives humbly, rather than dies nobly, for a cause. This rebukes Holden’s ideas of becoming a godlike figure who symbolically saves children fromfalling off a crazy cliffand being exposed to the evils of adulthood. Holden’s subsequent response to Antolini’s apparent homosexual (“flitty”)advances sunders this relationship also, but it is unclear whether this has in fact occurred the way Holden tells it, and he himself wondersin the first sign of growing mental maturitywhether his assessment was correct.

In the closing act, Holden decides to move out west, with about as much forethought and consideration as all his other actions, and at first decides to take Phoebe, then changes his mind, taking her to the zoo instead. And while he makes up his mind to go home andface the music” (whatever that may be in his context), it is unclear what he actually does, since it appears he closes his narration while staying in a mental asylum (or having just emerged from one) and then planning to re-ener school in the fall.


Many forests have been cut down to provide paper for the reams of analysis springing from criticspens on this novel. Is it as great or as influential as people say it is? Like all art in literature, it boils down to a matter of opinion. What seems clear is that it is one of the best-known, most-referenced, most-quoted books on alienation, childhood’s end, and teenage angst ever written. It was a shot across the bows of the staid early 1950s establishment that lived in a simpler, less complex mental environment where America had not yet taken the cutural centre stage of the world. It was heralded and decried in equal measure, villified often and banned frequently. Its narrative style, profanity and frank discussion of themes like religion, drugs and sexualitywhich were still ruled by a more prudish morality in public discourseensured its immediate fame (and notoriety), and that of its author.

Salinger found his own, unique voice and went on to inspire a different school of American fiction. He reintroduced an emotional range and unsentimental candour to American writing which had all but disappeared with the terse masculinity of Hemingway’s spare prose. To this day, most American writers find their voices through an apprenticeship to one style or the other. Decades of close reading and analysis in classrooms have placed Salinger’s fiction on the same footing in the American literary canon as The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn. So although he never published a second novel his work exerted an enduring, and wide-ranging influence over the style and content of modern American fiction.Huckleberry Finnhad a similar impact on the readers of its time, and indeed, the two novels share many thematic elements.

The consensus of Liquoraturesmembers is that while we admired the prescience of the author in addressing the aforementioned modern themes, and while we were intrigued by Holden’s progress throughout the book, we despised Caulfield himself: his constant whining, his judgemental behavior, his lack of vision and self-criticism, his uninformed narcissism and baseless opinions on everything. My 17-year old daughter read the book within a week of the Club, and interestingly, came to exactly the same conclusion. The irony of all this is that we decry Holden’s opinions and judging of others, while in order to do so, we do exactly what he did (though hopefully with more knowledge and critical thinking).

Two pieces of insight which came from our discussion are worth mentioning here.

One, we thought that for people possessing a certain mental maturity, achievers who are reasonably confident in who they are, probably don’t hold with Caulfield’s judgements and dislike him. But for the lost, the disconnected, the visionless and pathless, for those who lack a direction in their lifemostly the young, I suspect – “Catcherwould probably hold real meaning.

And two, how far is it to go from making snap judgements and formless, baseless assumptions about people one barely knows (and these judgements are almost always negative, it is interesting and sad to note), how difficult is it to move from sayingThis person has an aspect I do not liketo sayingWe must do something about him”?

That second point, encapsulating something of the intolerance of our times and the dreadful repercussions of people who take that step, perhaps hints at the enduring appeal ofCatcher in the Ryeand its buried power, which is still there, not dead, awaiting a call.

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