Explain why the book, "The Catcher in the Rye" is so significant in American society and culture?

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gpane | College Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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The Catcher in the Rye first appeared in 1951, a period of increasing material prosperity in the United States, which had suffered far less than Europe in the Second World War - indeed, this period was something of an economic boom for the country. Ordinary Americans were experiencing the fruits of modern technology more and more, with ever-increasing numbers of household appliances and cars and televisions and other gadgets. But amid all this, there was also increasing concern as to where society was actually going. One reason for this was that   international conflict was not slow to make a re-appearance, with the US engaging in Korea and the Cold War with the Soviet Union gathering apace. Such conflicts led increasingly to disillusionment among many observers. Meanwhile there were ongoing problems within American society itself, most visibly racism, which remained in some parts as virulent as it had ever been.

The beginning of the 1950s, then, was a time when many Americans started questioning their society's values, and wondering where the meaning of modern life actually lay. Materialism and technological advances,they felt, led to an essentially shallow, selfish and morally bankrupt society, where everything was done just for show, or to get ahead of one's competitors in the drive for social and material success. This is why Holden Caulfield, with his many-pronged attacks on phoniness, seemed to chime in with the mood of many at this time.

Holden's youthfulness and anti-establishment attitudes of course also made him popular with teenage readers, although he may have scandalised many adults. It should be remembered that this was the era where teenage culture, with its own idioms, its own music, can be said to have emerged properly for the first time, and a book with a protagonist like Holden, conveying all the anguish and idealism of adolescence, was inevitably a big hit in such an environment. The book's highly conversational and informal style, with constant use of youthful slang and other improper language, also helped make it distinctive - even among those who might frown upon its message.