There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” … “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure”
The foregoing quote pretty much captures why J.D. Salinger was the bane of publishers, and a public that was thirsty for more knowledge of the pathologically reclusive author.
I mention this because, in case it hadn’t caught your attention, Salinger just recently died at the age of 91. Fortunately Holden Caulfield survived and will continue to do so, as dated as the lad might be by now.
Salinger wrote a number of highly-regarded novels such as Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and so forth, but nothing quite captured the public’s imagination like 1951s The Catcher in the Rye.
It was with that book that the genuine postwar shit hit the fan – at least for young people. The novel was actually penned for an adult audience, but since the protagonist was a soul-tortured adolescent, it struck a huge chord with the young, most of whom believe that they too are tortured adolescents, even when they’re not.
So, if you are looking for something that set the tone for the late 1960s, say, look no further than C in the R. Elvis, James Dean and the Beatles were merely symptoms, Holden Caulfield was the prototype for disenchantment by the young, even though more active manifestations of that disenchantment weren’t to take place until a decade-and-a-half after Holden was spawned.
And, there were aspects of the rebellion of the 1960s that Holden would have detested He would have disliked not necessarily the counterculture leaders, but the pseuds and daytrippers that attached themselves to the ‘manifesto’, the crowd later excoriated by Tom Wolfe in Radical Chic. God save us from the Lee Radziwills of the world. Yes, subjects of Holden’s utter disdain was the ‘phonies’ of his postwar society. The phonies and the general phoniness of the American dream now that the war was over, the Depression fini, and the great wartime hero Ike was soon to be installed in the White House. This was to produce a decade that was anathema to sad and neurotic Holden who was desperately trying to hang on and was periodically slapped back to reality by kid sister, Phoebe.
This was the only person he genuinely loved and she is the metaphor for the title of the famous book, of course, as Holden will lie in the field of rye and attempt to save Phoebe from plummeting to her death.
Catcher in the Rye has had a hard go of it in the school system. That’s not surprising because the people whom young Caulfield detested the most are the very ones that tend to populate the halls of public secondary academe (such as it is) and especially schoolboards and PTAs.
“Can’t be having that sort of filth in our schools,” was the collective cry so often. “Can’t be encouraging dissent and the utterance of dirty words. That isn’t the sort of world we want our scrubbed kids to be aspiring towards.”
And, Catcher in the Rye contains some words about as dirty as one hears on network television these days, because Salinger had his young protagonist talk and muse in the way kids do, but not in the way teachers and parents want them to do. So, Catcher was out, darn it all.
I first read the book when I was about 15. I loved it. I loved it so much that I re-read it. And actually I read it about once a year until I was in my mid-20s. I really should read it again.
Yet, when I began teaching in my mid-20s, the book had still not passed muster. We were permitted to put it on a reading list, but it was not deemed suitable for classroom discussion. What we got in its lieu was a significantly inferior tome called A Separate Peace. Oh, I shouldn’t be unfair about that. It’s just that the prep-school snots didn’t really have the universal impact of Holden Caulfield, even though he was a prep-school brat, too.
Anyway, as fiercely neurotic as Salinger happened to be, I thank him for his revolutionary book. Not a bad legacy for any writer.