J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has proven to be one of the more controversial works of English literature, with many people having called for its ban at one time or another. The present sample essay provide by Ultius is part of a continuing series on the subject of banned books. The past two posts have consisted of case studies of the banned books Lord of the Flies and Ulysses; and the current post will likewise conduct a case study of Salinger’s novel.
This sample essay will have four main parts. The first part will consist of an overview of the work under consideration here. The second part will discuss the challenge that has been brought against the work. The third part will consider the relative merits or lack thereof contained by those challenges. Finally, the fourth part will consist of a summary reflection on what has been learned from the set of three banned book case studies that have been conducted as part of the present series of essays on banned books.
Click here to read Part I of the series, here for Part II, Part III, Part IV, or Part V.
Overview of the work
Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye consists of three days in the life of its protagonist Holden Caulfield. Caulfield is a deeply alienated, 16-year-old boy who tells his story from a tuberculosis rest home after experiencing a breakdown of his holistic health. Holden was leaves a prestigious preparatory boarding school after having had enough of how phony (one of his favorite words) the whole scene was, and especially after seeing a fellow boarder potentially take advantage of an old female friend of his. The novel essentially consists of Holden telling the story of what happened in the next few days of his life, interspersed with his philosophical musings, self-reflections, and personal reactions to the various situations in which he happened to find himself.
The title of Salinger’s work comes from a moving scene in the novel where Holden has a fantasy about becoming a catcher in the rye—that is, of protecting the innocence of children by keeping an eye on them while they are playing and preventing them from inadvertently falling off a cliff:
I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over that cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day, I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. (Salinger 224)
This vision of Holden protecting the innocence of others is especially poignant given the fact that Holden is virtually immersed in a life of what would ordinarily be called corruption. The fantasy suggests that at the bottom of it all, Holden has got a heart of gold.
Sadly, though, Holden’s fantasy was inspired by his own misunderstanding of a sexually explicit song. This is emblematic of the broader disconnection that Holden feels with the world around him, and his fundamental loneliness as he moves through his life. For instance, there is one scene in which Holden calls a prostitute; but when he realizes that she is about the same age that he is, he becomes uncomfortable and indicates that he would just like to talk with the girl. The girl herself is annoyed by this; and even though he pays her the full money asked of him, she still takes advantage of him, coming back for more with her pimp. The image of an adolescent boy who would rather talk with a girl than have sex with her captures the fundamental alienation experienced by Holden: what he is seeking is not any sort of physical pleasure, but rather some sense of real human connection. Much of Salinger’s novel is the account of Holden trying and failing to find such feeling.
Challenge against the work
The Catcher in the Rye struck an enormous chord when it was published in the year 1951. As McGrath has put the matter:
With its slangy, vernacular voice (Holden’s two favorite expressions are ‘phony’ and ‘goddam’), its sympathetic understanding of adolescence and its fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world, the novel struck a nerve in cold war America and quickly attained cult status, especially among the young. Reading ‘Catcher’ used to be an essential rite of passage, almost as important as getting your learner’s permit. (paragraph 6)
The book, however, also made itself powerful enemies, and for the exact reason that it became beloved by so many readers. The vulgarity and antisocial nature of Holden, while endearing him to anyone who could relate with him, also horrified the people who could not. Indeed, it is not difficult to understand how the novel could be charged with immorality, given that in a certain sense, this is actually the entire point of the work as a whole.
As Banned Books Week has put the matter:
Young Holden, favorite child of the censor. Frequently removed from classrooms and school libraries because it is “unacceptable,” “obscene,” “blasphemous,” “negative,” “foul,” “filthy,” and “undermines morality.” And to think Holden always thought “people never notice anything.”
This calls attention to the fact that there is a certain irony present in The Catcher in the Rye becoming a banned book. The irony consists of the fact that Holden himself may have expected his story to be treated in such a way by the phony adult world for which he has such obvious contempt. Salinger’s novel is essentially the story of a troubled young man who is looking for connection with other human beings. By banning the book, people are essentially telling Holden that he cannot be allowed to have this connection, and that his voice and experience deserve to be silenced—which, of course, would by why Holden has become so disaffected with the world in the first place.
It is perhaps worth turning to one specific case of people trying to ban the book The Catcher in the Rye; it will suffice as a general stand-in for several cases like itself. As Mydans wrote regarding a small town in California, in the year 1989:
If a group of local parents had let her speak to them before ‘The Catcher in the Rye‘ was banned from her high school, Shelly Keller-Gage says she would have told them she believes it is a highly moral book . . . But Mrs. Keller-Gage, an English teacher, was asked not to speak, and a small group of people led by a woman who says she has not read—and would never read—such a book, persuaded the school board to ban it. (paragraphs 1-2)
Ironically, the people of the town considered themselves to actually be fulfilling Holden’s own dream of becoming a catcher in the rye and protecting the innocence of children. They believed that
Merits of the challenge
However, the important question could be asked whether these people would be confusing innocence with ignorance, and also whether there could be any real innocence without real experience. In short, one could wonder whether Holden, being who he is, has a credibility lacked by the people who have tried to silence him. The philosopher Kierkegaard, for example, has suggested that to live in a state of dreaming ignorance is an almost sub-human mode of existence, and that the trauma of experience itself would be needed in order to bring people to a higher consciousness that is capable of accessing a full and lucid innocence.
In this context, there is a quite radical difference between Holden’s dream of being the catcher in the rye and the censors’ attempt to become the same. Holden wants, almost nostalgically, to protect others from experiencing the hardships that he himself has experience—but there is a tragedy inherent in this vision, due to the awareness that such a thing is impossible. The censors, on the other hand, what to literally impose a state of ignorance upon children, and they thus become monstrous in a way that Holden himself never once was.
Moreover, the call to ban Salinger’s book is especially problematic when one considers the work from the angle of the healing power inherent in the process of sharing stories. Holden’s narrative is clearly yet another attempt on his part to establish a real connection with other people; and adolescents who feel much the same way that Holden does would be the main ones who actually need to read the work, so that they may feel less alone and at least understood by someone.
Of course, there is the troubling fact that sociopathic killers, such as Chapman—the murderer of John Lennon—have taken a liking for Salinger’s book (see Whitehead). But this can only be understood as resulting from a gross perversion of the actual meaning of The Catcher in the Rye, whose actual driving impulse is the pursuit not of solipsistic madness but rather real human connection. The exceptional cases of persons having gone crazy over the work thus cannot be understood as indicative of the actual meaning or value of the book itself, and it surely should be considered as valid ground for banning the book.
It will now be appropriate to consider the above discussion regarding The Catcher in the Rye with the case studies of Lord of the Flies and Ulysses carried out in previous posts of the present series of essays, in order to tease out some of the main themes that have emerged over the course of the case studies. Primary among these themes is the obvious fact that the people who have called for bans of these books obviously have no comprehension of the nature or purposes of literature itself.
Lord of the Flies was banned for representing the dark side of human nature; Ulysses was banned for representing human consciousness itself with great fidelity; and The Catcher in the Rye was banned for representing the alienation that would surely be experienced by almost any sensitive adolescent in modern society (see Onion). The people who can do nothing but condemn such insights in the name of immorality clearly lack both aesthetic appreciation and a general awareness of the nature and meaning of the human condition.
Moreover, a key point that can be made here is that within a free society, the prerogatives of art exist in a sphere that is separate from the sphere of social morality and cannot be reduced to or controlled by the latter. For example, to portray the solicitation of a whore in a work of literature is not the same thing as to advocate for such a thing in actual social life; and more generally, to aesthetically portray “immorality” of any kind (assuming that immorality itself is still a coherent concept) is not necessarily to support or advocate for immorality in actual social life.
Nevertheless, it surely is true that when a powerful work of literature enters into the public consciousness, it could potentially affect that consciousness in a very strong way and cause changes in the basic attitudes and outlooks of the public itself. Cultural conservatives within society definitely are right to fear such a development; and the next post of the present essay series will take up the question of why this is, from a deep psychological perspective.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a banned book case study of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye. The essay has provided an overview of the plot, discussed the challenge brought against the work, dismissed the challenge as having no valid basis, and reflected on key themes that have emerged over the course of the case studies that have been conducted over the course of the present blog series. This concludes the present essay as well as the case studies component of this series. The next part of this series will consist of a deep psychological analysis, on the basis of Freudian theory, of why many people are so afraid of powerful works of literature. Please stay tuned!
Want to read more? Check out our literary analysis of The Light in the Forest, the unbanned story of a boy held captive by the Lenape tribe.
Banned Books Week. “Banned Books that Shaped America.” Author, n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2016. .
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Anxiety. Trans. Reidar Thomte. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1981. Print.
McGrath, Charles. “J.D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91.” New York Times. 28 Jan. 2010. Web. 9 Apr. 2016. .
Mydans, Seth. “In a Small Town, a Battle over a Book.” New York Times. 3 Sep. 1989. Web. 9 Apr. 2016. .
Onion, Rebecca. “The Sniffy, Scandalized Letter that Sealed the UK Government’s Ban of Ulysses.” Slate. 12 Jun. 2014. Web. 5 Apr. 2016 .
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1991. Print.
Whitehead, John W. “Mark David Chapman, The Catcher in the Rye, and the Killing of John Lennon.” Rutherford Institute, 3 Oct. 2000. Web. 9 Apr. 2016. .