Above all, quality and depth of theme and character are the hallmarks of lasting works of art. However, if we discuss this novel in light of its notoriety, we will focus less on literary qualities and more on cultural significance.
The clamor over the book undoubtedly contributed to its popularity among the young: It became the forbidden fruit in the garden of literature.
Holden Caulfield is often seen as a counter-cultural figure, full of discontent for the status quo, prepared to rebel against many or all of the expectations heaped on him by a society that is too stiff, too pretentious and too false to be acceptable. Whether or not this view is accurate given the actual text, it is none-the-less a widely held view of the novel's protagonist.
For these reasons and others, Holden Caulfield is not a typical narrator and the story he narrates is not a typical story. Stepping outside the bounds of conventional storytelling, Salinger's novel opens itself up to being characterized as being transgressive.
The counter-culture buzz attached to the novel helped to popularize the book upon its release in 1951. Readers flocked to the book, making it a best seller, and a divided (and perhaps even divisive) conversation emerged.
Even though The Catcher in the Rye is usually considered only a "minor" classic of American fiction, it is a very popular novel that frequently provokes strong reactions—both positive and negative—from its readers.
Critics have noted that the strength of reader's responses to the novel may help to explain its continued popularity.
...the diversity and intensity of readers' reactions to The Catcher in the Rye suggest that the issues it raises are significant ones.
The book, it seems, hit a nerve.
By exposing a sensitive area of the public psyche (characterized generally as "conformity"), Salinger sparked a something of a reassessment of popular values with his novel.
Even if Holden Caulfield was not actually rebelling against the status quo, but was, rather, engaged in a personal struggle to achieve some stability and wholeness after the loss of his younger brother, the novel itself has become emblematic of a moral posture questioning received wisdom (and in turn questioning the "wisdom" of blind acquiescence to prevalent values).