Ever since its arrival on the literary scene in the 1950’s, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has continued to enjoy immense popularity in academic and critical circles alike. Though the amount of literature that has spawned forth its reception has seen its fair share of crests and troughs, the impact of the book has been huge. The appeal of Salinger’s succinct plot that takes the readers on the picaresque journey his protagonist takes from his school to his home in New York is astonishing. The sales figures of the book evince the case of its popularity. Needless to point out, the immense popularity of The Catcher in the Rye can be attributed to Salinger’s ingenious creation- Holden Caulfield. Holden Caulfield is the primary reason of the novel’s sustained readership.
Anyone even remotely familiar with the text can point out that the protagonist who uses ‘crazy’ verbatim and mentions the cognates of that word over fifty times, has been alleged to be a misanthropist, a human “who dislikes everything.” Christopher Parker contends, “Holden likes the only things really worth likingbecause he is sincere and he won’t settle for less.” Several critics in the recent past have concurred with Parker’s line of thought. They have dismissed the initial response to the ‘incessant rant of Holden Caulfield” as adolescent babble as a misreading of the text, and instead placed the novel in its rightful place as a text that seriously engages in the exploration of the picaresque, an acute intensity of longing and yearning for the shared tenets of authenticity and innocence. While Holden’s choice of being the ‘catcher in the rye’ clearly depicts his yearning for a bygone era, the innocent experience, his choice is rooted at once in his fate of being both beloved and banned, as is that of his narrative The Catcher in the Rye, in its character of being the most frequently censored book in the 1970’s whilst also being the simultaneous choice of being the most-oft taught book in public schools. Caulfield displays an anguished awareness of self, in a world that is increasingly and overwhelmingly alien to him and his worldview. Thus, his musings are those of a person deeply disillusioned and suffering from disidentification. His problem is that of being unable to reconcile himself to a new, corrupt and ‘phony’ order and schema of living. His yearning for a lost age of innocence and simplicity becomes acutely immanent in the face of a milieu he deems repulsive. He asserts, “All I did was, I got up and went over and looked out the window. I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead.’ Several critics have alleged Caulfield of being so self-involved that any character in his narrative, with the exception of his sister Phoebe alone, lost all authenticity, but Salinger allows his reader to side with his hero, even though he charts out little that his protagonist does in order to attain a reconciliation of sorts with the new paradigm of society, save his recuperating stint at the sanitarium from where he recounts his story. What then constitutes this solidarity with the protagonist, who finds his teachers, batchmates, fellow New Yorkers ‘phony’? Why does the novel appeal to academic and plebeian interest alike, despite its implicit indictment of the various systems and its related paraphernalia that it critiques, under the veneer of an adolescent’s ‘incessant ramble-babble’? The answer is simple, and quite often one that does not seem to go down well with the critics from the former school of thought. Holden Caulfield and his narrative, The Catcher in the Rye are orotund expressions of alienation from a society, deeply infested with the germs of vain pursuits of materialism, inextricably linked with shallowness and a marked degree of self-interest, often pushed to the extreme. This answer, thus leads us to a consideration of the reasons behind such disillusionment and disenchantment, thus causing us to delve into the context that breeds youth like Caulfield to initiate (or probably not, because the world is too phony anyway, and shall not change) a youthquake.
Much of criticism over Holden has focussed on his narrative and consequently Salinger’s novel as ‘a critique of the contemporary grown-up world’ or one that captures the baffling complexity of modern life that has perplexed and shocked so many youths as Holden. The mistake implicit in such readings is a simplistic one- the error of being predisposed towards typification and generic categorization, thereby trying to deviate from viewing the novel from the critical vantage point of an overarching framework of timeless, transcendent morality (as mentioned earlier) but differing from them in only as much as vaguely alluding to Holden’s time and place.
The 1950’s was a time of socio-political flux. The postwar economy saw considerable prosperity, the immanent threat from a totalitarian regime endorsed and bolstered by Stalin’s vision caused several writers and thinkers to defend America and its freedom whilst the enormous increase in the number of people attending college and university (aided by GI bill) made the professional-managerial populace swell. These sweeping changes were accompanied by the U.S. extending help to the U.N. over the Korean issue so as to serve its own economic interests. A congruence with the historical moment, the conflict between nations and the widespread acceptance of an acquisitive, highly competitive society was partially mirrored in Caulfield’s world. It was the inclusion of this context, however stipulative the inclusion might be (this is contestable and forms subject matter for another critical enquiry), that Salinger meant for Holden to be wary of and wary he is. Using Caulfield as his mouthpiece, Salinger voices the concerns of all the writers who have wanted to resort to the path of radical dissent aimed at the new order, and succeeds at it in a marvellously entertaining manner. The idiomatic phrases, symbolic style, outrageous humor and deft, quick incomplete sentences Salinger stuffs in Caulfield’s mouth are prototypical of the youth and their anxieties about a conformist culture. Therefore, despite the fact that critic Alfred Kazin takes a harsh view of Caulfield as representative of the “vast number who have been released by our society to think of themselves as endlessly sensitive, spiritually alone, [and] gifted, and whose suffering lies in the narrowing of their consciousness to themselves,” there remains little doubt about the relevance and pertinence of the reasons why more observant literary critics genuflect to Salinger’s ‘pithy’ construct of Caulfield, even whilst the novel still battles its place in the canon and duels with the status of ‘some form of lesser art.’ The narcissistic mode to which Caulfield’s narrative is attributed, then, fits more properly in a cogent tradition of waging a war against a presaged totalitarianism and promoting the emergence of freedom as a cherished ideal.
Thus, one finds from the above discussion, that Christoper Parker’s contention holds true and that Holden Caulfield is indeed more human than the rest of the mechanized slaves slogging away to an order that is relentlessly engaged in building a life of vacuity, hollow comfort and meaninglessness that the pursuit of materialist, tangible elements shall accord them. Inherent in the ‘incessant ramble’ of an adolescent young boy are the lyrics of a song of distress, of pain and disillusion with the malady that seems to be infesting the entire fabric of society. As is clear, the song is definitely one that we identify and relate to, one whose notes resonate within the chambers of our hearts and minds, and yet, we fail to join Caulfield in his song and sing along. We deviate from the very aim that is Caulfield’s and Salinger’s, in giving us The Catcher in the Rye and instead conform to socially subscribed norms, in exhorting Holden, instead, to reconcile himself to the ‘phony’ world he detests, vis-à-vis psychiatric aid. Nonetheless, Caulfield’s remarkable picaresque journey remains one of the most hauntingly evocative and beautifully depicted agonizing quest for a ‘Caulfield-ian utopic idyll.’ And it is in the attainment of this feat that Caulfield and consequently Salinger, himself remain literary heroes- perennially cherished.
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