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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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Publication History and Reception: The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger was published in 1951, a few years after the end of World War II in 1945. Upon publication, The Catcher in the Rye was received with mixed reviews. Early critics tended to respond to Salinger’s novel with evaluations of protagonist Holden Caulfield’s character and situation. Favorable reviews found the novel a keen evocation of youth; unfavorable reviews found the novel—and Holden—grating and immature. In the two decades following the novel’s publication, academic interest in the work increased. Although these critics expectedly traced the novel’s formal contours and devices, they continued to focus primarily on Holden and his troubles.

  • The Influence of World War II: In the wake of World War II, American culture largely focused on growth and expansion, rather than on mourning the losses of the war. Salinger served in World War II and was present for D-Day, the invasion of Allied forces into Normandy, France. In Catcher, Holden’s older brother, D.B., has a service record similar to Salinger’s. Holden himself experiences disillusionment, depression, and a disconnection from society, similar to many WWII veterans who grappled with PTSD and mental health issues after the war. Some critics also see the cultural influence of the Cold War playing out through Holden’s paranoia and insistence on truth-telling, and the novel’s approach to hypocrisy.
  • Censorship of The Catcher in the Rye: The Catcher in the Rye is both widely taught and widely challenged in American public schools. Recently, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the novel has been one of the country’s “Top Ten Most Challenged Books” in 2001, 2005, and 2009. Censors of the novel target its profanity; its references to drinking, prostitution, and sex; and its protagonist’s disdain for adults.

Literary Period and Impact on Culture: In 1951, Salinger told New Yorker editor William Maxwell that “A writer, when he's asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves.” Salinger’s loves include authors as diverse as Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, John Keats, Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, and Henry James. 

  • The Influence of Modernism: Although Saligner’s novel does not exemplify the modernist movement, his style was influenced by the work of modernist writers. Modernism is most closely associated with literature written in the aftermath of the violence and devastation of World War I. Modernist fiction often features fragmented plots and stream-of-consciousness narration, both of which Salinger employs for Catcher.
  • A New Type of Adolescent: Whereas before World War II, the particular experience of adolescence was rarely discussed, after the war it began to be described and depicted as a time of rebellion against cultural norms. The postwar economic boom and consolidation of mandatory public education combined to create an environment in which teen culture could develop independent of adult supervision. Institutions as established as the FBI warned of a rise in “juvenile delinquency,” and movies like The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) contributed to a new understanding of teenagers as a separate social class.

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