Published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye was an immediate best-seller and a Book- of-the-Month-Club selection. The controversy surrounding it began almost simultaneously with its publication. The complaints against this book have been steady throughout the years, beginning in 1954 in California’s Los Angeles and Marin counties. Surveys taken in the early 1960’s indicated that the book was one of the most often banned selections, as well as one of the most frequently taught books in schools. Two decades later its rankings in both categories remained essentially unchanged. The book has been a target of censorship by critics who have found its central character, Holden Caulfield, a poor “role model” who uses foul language, among other things. Those who defend the book, however, maintain that its multidimensional qualities justify teaching it in literature courses at all educational levels.
As the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, Caulfield describes the two days that he spends roaming New York City because his “nerves were shot.” He uses this trip as a temporary escape before his parents learn that he has been expelled from yet another prep school. During this adventure, Caulfield makes both an actual and symbolic journey. In New York, he not only finds diversion from the problems he is having at school, but he immerses himself in the place that he finds most confusing—the adult world. As he wanders the city, he visits bars, encounters a prostitute, calls an old girlfriend, helps several nuns, and sneaks home for a brief visit with his kid sister, Phoebe, whom he dearly loves.
Caulfield discloses both the concrete details of his excursion to New York and the intimate details of his inner self. As an antihero, Caulfield finds it difficult to function in a system where nothing seems to be done for its own sake. Instead he sees people behaving primarily to satisfy others’ expectations. Although he strives for a sense of normalcy, he knows that he will never attain it. He remains a tortured adolescent; unable to understand life, he dismisses all adults as “phonies” and regards life as an unevenly matched game.
Caulfield’s poor attitude about life is only a minor point for those who have tried to censor this book. A 1991-1992 study by the People for the American Way found that this novel was among those most likely to be censored on the grounds that it is “anti- Christian,” or opposed to a censor’s religious convictions. Throughout the United States, parents have objected to the teaching of the book to their children in the public classroom because of its sexual content, references to drinking, rebellion, profanity, vulgarity, and prostitution. Other charges leveled against teaching the book have included its portrayal of an allegedly immoral figure who is a poor role model for youths, its negative depictions of adults, and its lack of literary value. Some who have fought to censor this novel have taken a middle ground, claiming that the book should not be read by high- school-age students because it contains primarily adult themes. In 1991, for example, an organization called Concerned Citizens of Florida wanted to remove the book from a high school library, charging that its content was “immoral” and had “no literary merit.”
The language that Caulfield uses to tell his story is another broad basis of contention for censors. Some parents who have formally complained about the teaching of the book have counted hundreds of “vulgarities,” such as “damn,” “Chrissakes,” “horny,” “hell,” “crap,” and “bastard.”
Those who have taught The Catcher in the Rye, or have advocated teaching the book, have generally emphasized its literary value and have objected to the idea of censorship in general. Supporters have argued that if the book were removed from classrooms or libraries because of the objections of a few parents, all children would be harmed by such censorship. Those who have taught the book point out that it is much more than the tale of a misfit teenager. In using the antihero device, Salinger created a character with whom young readers can easily identify. However, this is exactly what has alarmed those who have wished to censor the book. Supporters of the book argue that those who call Caulfield a poor role model forget that he does want to become a hero to children. Indeed, the title of the book derives from a dream in which he stands in a rye field next to a cliff. As children run toward him, he catches them before they fall over the edge of the cliff. Symbolically, Caulfield is saving these children from becoming adults. He does not want himself or any children to fall into the adult world. For those who teach the novel, this is why they teach it—its thought-provoking theme of passing from a child’s to an adult’s world without hope of turning back. For those against it, this represents just another negative characterization of adults, and that when coupled with the foul language and suggestive scenes also in the novel, it is inappropriate material to be taught in schools.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Holden Caulfield. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
Grunwald, Henry Anatole, ed. Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait. New York: Har-per & Row, 1962. Contains two important articles on The Catcher in the Rye. One deals with Holden Caulfield as an heir of Huck Finn; the other is a study of the novel’s language.
Laser, Marvin, and Norman Fruman, eds. Studies in J. D. Salinger: Reviews, Essays, and Critiques of “The Catcher in the Rye” and Other Fiction. New York: Odyssey Press, 1963. Includes an intriguing essay by a German, Hans Bungert, another by a Russian writer, and one of the best structural interpretations of the novel, by Carl F. Strauch.
Marsden, Malcolm M., ed. If You Really Want to Know: A “Catcher” Casebook. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1963. Contains reviews of the original publication of the novel. Examines Holden from opposing points of view, as “saint or psychotic.”
Pinsker, Sanford. “The Catcher in the Rye”: Innocence Under Pressure. Boston: Twayne, 1993. A sustained study of the novel. Contains a helpful section on the body of critical literature on the novel.
Salzberg, Joel, ed. Critical Essays on Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
Salzman, Jack, ed. New Essays on “The Catcher in the Rye.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Provides an unusual sociological reading of the novel as well as an essay that firmly places the novel in American literary history.
Steinle, Pamela Hunt. “The Catcher in the Rye” Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character. A study of the impact of the novel on its release during a nervous period in American social history.