Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 20 Sep 2015

Catcher In The Rye by J.D.Salinger


Rosemary Chrimes chose to introduce her book club members to J.D.Salinger’s  Catcher in the Rye but unfortunately the club didn’t meet. She has chosen, instead,  to share her views on this 20th century classic with the Letterpress Project Director


Dear Karen,

I am sorry that the group didn't get a chance to discuss Catcher as it raises lots of interesting questions that cannot really be covered in some isolated comments.

Why did I choose it? It was included in the BBC Big Read survey of 2003 seeking the Nation's best loved books and it was rated in the top 21.

It was published as a novel in 1951 though relevant articles and short stories had been printed in The New Yorker in the mid forties after Salinger left the army.

It has had incredible success and over the years has sold 65 million copies!! It has been translated into many languages , and was in Time's list of 100 best English language novels of the 20th Century...... and as a Scot I was intrigued by a title giving evidence of a misquoted Burns song. I gather that Salinger had heard a boy singing the song but had not grasped the proper words. It was strange that Holden Caulfield's dream of catching children running through a field of rye before they fell over a cliff and lost their innocence touches on the main theme of the novel.

And I had never read it.... so I thought I should do something about it as I had obviously been missing out!

Many readers are hugely irritated by Holden Caulfield. They don't like his bad language, his lack of commitment to his studies, his wastefulness of his parents' money (well off but not in contact) his smoking and drinking etc, etc. Others see it as a typical coming-of -age novel , a rite of passage, a seeking of identity in a confusing world,,,perhaps echoes of Huckleberry Finn..... it certainly touched a chord with young people and was a real breakthrough in a conservative 50s America. Indeed it was banned in many schools and certainly censored.....enough to make it a best seller of course nowadays..

The book covers 3 days in the life of teenager Holden Caulfield who has been expelled (not for the first time) from an expensive school. and he is recovering from a nervous breakdown. The story is told through Holden's verbal reportage and comment rather than any truly descriptive or narrative passages. We see the world and other people from his perspective and the "grown-up" world of 50s America is not to his liking. He sees "phoneyness" in adult behaviour while he admires the goodness and innocence of his young sister Phoebe who is one of the few people he can communicate with. The 2 other people whom he admires are Allie his brother who died and "good old Jane" in whose defence he suffers a beating up from his nasty room mate.

It is interesting that neither of those characters actually takes an active role but are used as important reference points. The book is so skilfully written that we can be vexed at Holden's behaviour, but at the same time be aware of his sensitivity, his acute observation, and his frequent acts of generosity and sense of fairness. There is a lot of wry humour in his crazy adventures at school and in New York (the fencing manager leaving the kit on the train, the hunting cap, writing to the master who failed him so he wouldn't feel bad, worrying about the ducks in Central Park, going out West to be a deaf mute etc etc) He often sounds like an idiot but he's not a complete fool by any means.

Many people disappoint him and there is no real resolution at the end but there is no fake happy ending either. Holden may end up a recluse like Salinger himself. Salinger did not write anything else of note though many attempts were made to get his agreement to make a film he never gave his approval.

On my first reading I didn't like the novel very much. On second reading I found it more acceptable though it lacked character development. It was very self- centred and the slang was a bit irritating....not as bad as today's mind you.

On third reading, after postponement of the group meeting, I really began to admire it and the writer's use of language..he could keep the flow of ideas going with great skill.and maintain freedom expression.


p.s. it was a bit disconcerting to discover that a copy of Catcher in the Rye was found in the pocket of John Lennon's assassin on the day of the shooting in New York.