Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

Mixed reviews greeted J. D. Salinger's first novel, The Catcher in the Rye, published on July 16, 1951. New York Times critic Nash K. Burger, for example, lauded the book as "an unusually brilliant first novel," and Chicago Tribune reviewer Paul Engle called the novel "engaging and believable." In contrast, T. Morris Longstreth stated in the Christian Science Monitor that "the book was not fit for children to read." Regarding Holden Caulfield, the book's teenage narrator and protagonist, Longstreth wrote- "Fortunately there cannot be many of him yet. But one fears that a book like this given wide circulation may multiply his kind— as too easily happens when immorality and perversion are recounted by writers of talent whose work is countenanced in the name of art of good intention." In the novel's defense, critic James Bryan wrote in PMLA: "The richness of spirit in this novel, especially of the vision, the compassion and the humor of the narrator, reveal a psyche far healthier than that of the boy who endured the events of this narrative. Through the telling of his story, Holden has given shape to, and thus achieved control of, his troubled past."

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It can be argued that The Catcher in the Rye is as much a critique of society as a revelation of the rebellion and angst of a teenage boy. The book takes potshots at a post-World War II society full of self-righteousness and preoccupied by the pursuit of the "American Dream" of everlasting prosperity. Salinger depicts this goal as being empty and meaningless. Commented the great American novelist William Faulkner who praised Salinger's novel, "When Holden attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there."

The reader never finds out how Holden turns out. Will he compromise with the realities of people and society, becoming like the people he despised? Will the banality of everyday events engulf his reluctant coming of age, leaving him a tormented misfit for the rest of his life? Or will he become a superhero, leading others out of the slough of the ordinary and into a more enlightened view of life? The reader will never know unless Salinger writes a sequel. His most recent novel, Hapworth 16, 1924, released in the spring of 1997, is a republication of a long short story that appeared in the New Yorker in the 1960s. The featured character in the new book is Seymour Glass, member of another well-to-do fictional New York family depicted in a number of Salinger short stories. For some readers and critics, however, the endless saga of the eccentric Glass family eventually wore out its welcome. The Catcher in the Rye and Hapworth 16, 1924 are the only two novels Salinger has thus far written. But he did write a wealth of short stories for such magazines as the New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post, and Collier's.

If The Catcher in the Rye were introduced as a new book today, it would certainly not be considered as shocking now as it was in the 1950s. But it would still be viewed as a true and vivid portrait of adolescent angst. It can therefore rightly take its place among the literary classics of the twentieth century.

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