I have a different take on Catcher in the Rye than most people do. My take is this: Catcher in the Rye is about a disturbed teenager who people can sympathize with, but ultimately reject, the way most of American society rejects those who suffer from mental illnesses or disorders.
The novel begins with Holden saying he's out in California. While not stated implicitly, the reader should understand he's at a mental hospital. This lets the reader know that this book is not about an ordinary teenager, but someone going through an episode. When read from that perspective, the tales of Holden's encounters with Stradlater, Mr. Andolini and Sally all look a little different. I'm not saying Stradlater and Mr. Andolini are innocent, but their stories about Holden probably differ from the ones we're told in the novel.
Whenever my class discusses the scenes with Sally, they usually react negatively toward her. I usually try to take them to task. I ask them, "What did she do that was so wrong?" or "How does Sally inviting Holden over for Christmas suggest her phoniness?" They usually respond with hunches and very little analysis. As a reader, we want to believe that Holden is the victim in the book. He is the victim, but Sally is not the victimizer.
This book is important today because it tackles the idea that teenagers are human beings and that they have problems, just like adults do. This book is relevant because it puts a face on mental illness and it generates sympathy for those suffering.
Usually, when we speak of mental illness as a society, it's only when something bad happens. Catcher in the Rye took part of the blame for the shooting of John Lennon because the killer, Mark David Chapman, suffered from mental illness and said he could relate to Holden. I wouldn't be surprised to see that many of the mass shooters in America also read Catcher in the Rye and could relate to Holden. This is not to say that all those who suffer from mental disorders or illnesses are prone to mass killings. In fact, Holden is an example of what can happen when a good kid with a mental illness receives treatment.
I think that there will be much more investigation into this question given Salinger's recent passing. The highest amount of relevancy into Salinger's work would be how it configures adolescence as a period of conflict. There is conflict between individual and society, individual and other individuals, and even within individuals. Conflict and dissonance play vital roles in define what it means to be an adolescent and how one interacts with the world during the period of adolescence. I think that this proves a level of relevance in the work. At the same time, I feel that another level of relevance is the examination of those who are or feel on "the outside looking in." This is highly relevant as more people do feel a bit ostracized by the mainstream for whatever reason. In school settings where social marginalization can be practiced with striking and unnerving regularity, Holden's narrative holds a great deal of meaning.
"Now he's out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies. Don't even mention them to me." So begins Holden Caulfield’s caustic assault on the Hollywood studio, a symbol of burgeoning 1950s materialism and artistic hypocrisy and, closer to home, the corruptor of his brother's fiction. This self-professed censor of film, however, goes out of his way to mention movies, movie-goers, actors, and even depicts his own stylized death scene, patterned after a gangster-film hit, all indicating that Holden is caught between an abhorrence and a love affair with movies. What a hypocrite! And yet, what a funny hypocrite!
Holden was the first literary teenager in the age of the teenager. Before the war, teenagers were not much different from adults: they could work for a living, as there were few child labor laws. Only a relative few went to college or had any mobility or disposable income. None of them had much of a personality. None of them rebelled.
And then there was Holden Caufield. After him, there have been a lot of Holden Caufields.
In the post-war boom, teenagers like Holden were going off to prep schools, movies, clubs, and friends' houses like never before, largely due to the automobile and disposable income. And largely due to him. His rebellious voice gave them rebellious voices. Their freedom has been as such ever since.
Holden gave a voice to this new subculture of American youth. He echoed the same spirit of rebellion that Huck Finn echoed generations earlier. He too was disenfranchised by the materialism of the mainstream culture. Holden broke away from the illegitimate society and formed a traveling community of one. His humorous voice resounded with his readers then and now.
The main reason why it is so popular today is the fact that its universal theme: people can be lonely and unhappy with people around them, is so universal and readily seen in many teenagers today. many teenagers have such angst when growing up and maturing and have a difficult time in adjusting to their successes ands failures. In many young people, they see the failures of Holden, four schools so far, similar to their own when things go wrong, and no doubt have a feeling of not necessarily superiority, but a unique feeling that people around them are "phony" and that young people think they have all the answers to life.