For more than fifty years, Catcher fans have found a friend in the lonely misfit Holden Caulfield. The essays in this volume offer an examination of the novel's impact over time, and include discussions of the reach of Salinger's influence, Catcher's tumultuous history, and the culture and politics of the post-war era.
For more than fifty years, Catcher, easily the most banned book of the twentieth century American canon, the favorite target of conservative school systems, earnest parents groups, and strident church organizations, has thrived on its reputation as an underground text, passed among ardent readers with cult-like fanaticism, hard core fans who have found in the lonely misfit Holden Caulfield a companion, a friend for life.
But time has passed. And the question now arises: What exactly are we to do with a shocking book that no longer shocks, an incendiary text that no longer incites. What happens when the bogeyman no longer terrifies?
Indeed, by any contemporary measure of cool, Holden can come across as a shrill, obnoxious, judgmental, whiney, arrogant kid whose entire psychic stability has been unhinged by a single death (his younger brother's. By contemporary standards, Holden's swearing lacks fire and, far worse, originality. Holden's anti-authoritarianism seems cliché; his rants against phony adults, pedestrian; his apprehensions over sex, trivial; his terror over growing up, childish. And far more telling, in our culture's hard-won environment of diversity, Holden can appear to have little to say to, well, just about everyone, to minorities, to women, to the religiously devout, to gays; indeed, he speaks for a distinctly narrow demographic—spoiled, horny, white, private school-educated agnostic American male children of privilege.
This volume argues that, with the death of Salinger, we are at a threshold moment in our long obsession with Holden and its eccentric author, a chance to re-approach The Catcher in the Rye. We can approach the book now as readers. As it turns out, there is more to Holden Caulfield than, well, Holden. And there is more to Catcher in the Ryethan Sonny Salinger. Liberated from the need to identify with (or the zeal to condemn) Holden Caulfield, liberated from the dark charisma of its troubled hermit-author, we can at last confront a novel whose argument, as it turns out, we have only begun to measure.
This volume gathers essays—now-classic investigations into the novel as well as new perspectives—that collectively offer the opportunity to begin such a re-introduction. There are, of course, essays that detail the emotional impact of first hearing Holden's voice. In these poignant essays, readers set aside the pedagogical imperative and attempt to understand the human ties they felt with Holden. These essayists remind readers today that once upon a time novels, and the characters in them, had the deeply personal impact that are now routinely associated with films, music, and television. However beyond such intimacy, the private identification with a book and a charismatic main character, Catcher speaks to a much broader community.
Scholars have positioned the novel within the wider currents of American literature. After all, Catcher's genre—the coming of age novel—is intrinsic to American narrative. By way of context, one essay reviews the novel's tumultuous history, the fierce condemnation and profound admiration that Catcher, alone among novels of post-war America, generated. Another shows how Catcher was part of the 1950's and that decade's complex assessment of the rewards (and dangers) of capitalism when, in the economic post-war boom, writers critiqued the mercenary assumptions of prosperity and ambition and the whole range of suburban gray flannel aspirations.
But Salinger's novel is ultimately both bound to its era and timeless as well, an expression of the collective imagination that makes such a tender, defiant book resonate across generations. What drives Holden to his ferocious discontent is what troubles all American adolescents—the settling into a stultifying routine, the disenchantment that comes with growing up.
This volume opens Catcher to a new and vibrant range of perspectives by challenging newcomers to the book to approach the novel through the argument of contemporary critical schools, including gender studies, social psychology, and media studies.
There is also the sobering reminder of that the novel's impact has been problematic: Salinger's novel has been implicated in horrific incidents in which troubled, emotionally stunted misfits have found in Holden's voice encouragement to act on their latent violent impulses.
But the contemporary impact of the novel is left behind by close reading. The present collection offers a stimulating range of them. One essay reconstructs Holden as a carefully designed vocal event, Salinger's deft shaping of a teenage voice consistent with the 1950's, a tour de force of authorial creation. Another elaborates a close reading of Holden's fiercely contradictory character by suggesting the rich dimension of Christian compassion to Holden's doomed, quixotic struggle to preserve innocence. Yet another explicates the symbolic implications of the death of Holden's younger brother, the emotional crisis that, despite Holden's reluctance to share much about it, shapes his brooding temperament and inevitably raises significant cautions about Holden's reliability as a narrator. The novel's ending provides to explore from different angles the implications of Holden's epiphany, his decision to forsake his naïve (and sweetly romantic) dream of protecting the innocent.
In sum, none of these essays offer definitive textual analyses; rather collectively they implicitly encourage further work, Catcher doing what any great novel does—incite responsible speculation, the endlessly rewarding round of a community of engaged readers assembling and defending provocative readings of a provocative text.
Each essay is 5,000 words in length, and all essays conclude with a list of "Works Cited," along with endnotes. Finally, the volume's appendixes offer a section of useful reference resources:
- A chronology of the author's life
- A complete list of the author's works and their original dates of publication
- A general bibliography
- A detailed paragraph on the volume's editor
- Notes on the individual chapter authors
- A subject Index