Why ‘Rye’ endures: The Little Red Book of Adolescence

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Fifty years ago, just before winter break, 16-year-old Holden Caulfield got kicked out of Pencey Prepatory School because he was flunking every class but English. It was his fourth expulsion. So instead of waiting for the vacation to officially begin, he decided to hightail it home to New York and get a hotel room where he could “take it easy” for a few days before facing his parents.

The world would never be the same again.

Swinging wildly between sarcastic contempt--for Ivy League phonies “in their goddamn checkered vests, for the goddamn movies,” for the word “grand"--and sentimental hope sparked by women and their suitcases, boring guys who are secretly terrific whistlers, by his dead brother Allie and living sister Phoebe, Holden lurches through an internal odyssey that eventually leads him home.

“The Catcher in the Rye,” J.D. Salinger’s first and only full-length novel, debuted in July 1951. Reviews were mixed-- New York Times reviewer James Stern, in an embarrassing effort to mimic what would become an iconic voice, claimed “this Salinger, he’s a short story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book, though, it’s too long.... And he should have cut out a lot about these jerks and all at that crumby school.”

Others found Holden’s expletive-heavy vocabulary, his sexual frankness and his generally bad attitude reprehensible. Periodically condemned as pornographic, perverse, morbid and salacious, “The Catcher in the Rye” has been banned from as many bookshelves as that other all-American symbol of subversive thought, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Which may have done much to enhance the book’s almost immediate popularity with teens and young adults. But even without the good/bad press, “Catcher” was destined for longevity. For young adults, Holden’s vain, and often contradictory, crusade against conformity and phoniness in the adult world was the only true literary reflection of their lives. Within a decade, it had become the manifesto of youth, the little red book of the rising counterculture.

And so it remains. “Catcher” is taught in schools across the country from eighth grade through college, where, according to teachers and students, its power and popularity remain unflagging.

“I never found a kid who didn’t love Holden,” says Rose Gilbert, an English teacher at Palisades High. Gilbert has taught “Catcher” since the mid-'50s, she says, and the themes of the book are just as relevant today as they were when it was first published. “The pressures on kids to achieve are even worse now,” she says. “The Stanford 9, tests every minute, the pressure to conform in looks and behavior. All the things that cause Holden’s breakdown are right there in front of them.”

Little, Brown has sold more than 60 million copies of “The Catcher in the Rye” since 1951; annual sales remain steady at a quarter of a million a year. Its place in the world of letters is far from static--Janet Malcolm recently wrote a long and impassioned argument that his later book “Franny and Zooey” rather than “Catcher” is Salinger’s masterpiece. Rare copies of the bootlegged “J.D. Salinger: The Complete Uncollected Short Stories” are passed from fan to fan. (If nothing else, these rather mediocre stories illuminate the importance of craftsmanship and patience. Three involve early permutations of the Caulfield family and prove that Holden did not simply appear to Salinger in a dream, fully formed--every pejorative was carefully chosen, every “boy” and “lousy” and “if you want to know the truth” meticulously placed to create the book’s seamless monologue.)

Holden’s voice--direct, irreverent, self-referential--reinvented the coming-of-age novel, and cleared shelf space for the “young adult” works of S.E. Hinton, Paul Zinder, even Judy Blume. The influence of that voice is apparent even on the current bestsellers list. With its relentless vacillations between self-doubt and self-aggrandizement, Dave Egger’s “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” reads like a messy sequel in which Holden’s parents have had their famous two hemorrhages apiece, leaving him and Phoebe to raise one another.

There are hundreds of Web sites devoted to Holden Caulfield, even more to his author, whose personal eccentricities, including a perpetual dismissal of his many fans, have made him a tantalizing figure. Since the early ‘60s, he has lived in semi-isolation. He does not give interviews or appear publicly, neither has he published any of the continuing “Glass” chronicles it is rumored he has been working on for many years. More recently, he refused to be smoked out by the unflattering, tell-all memoirs of former lover Joyce Maynard and daughter Margaret or even by Maynard’s auctioning off of letters he wrote her during their courtship. ( Los Angeles philanthropist Peter Norton bought the letters and returned them to Salinger.)

Besides the mixed oddities of character and creator, there are many reasons “Catcher” occupies a unique place in our collective conscious. The haunting plainness of its cover, the fact that it has not and probably never will be made into a movie, and the unfortunate connection to the murder of John Lennon all contribute. But more than anything is the age at which most people read it--the fey years of adolescence, when rage and longing swell the heart and leave it easily imprinted.

‘The Book You Can Give

a Kid Who Hates to Read’

“It’s the book you can give a kid who hates to read, and he will read it,” says William Goldyn, who heads the English department at Hollywood High. “Holden is so much like the kid who hates reading, they can really identify with him--his lousy vocabulary, his getting kicked out, his getting in fights. He’s just like them.”

This, of course, is one of the many things some parents, and critics, have objected to over the years. That Holden is not a good example, that his anti-heroic celebrity will only encourage other teens to follow in his footsteps. “I think it is a dangerous book for teens,” says one father of teens. “I remember reading it and feeling mopey and depressed for months, and feeling very justified in feeling mopey and depressed.”

Goldyn and others argue that a careful reading of the book produces more hope than sorrow, and that, as a chronicle of a young man’s mental and physical breakdown, it provides its own caveats. “I always tell students in the beginning to remember that Holden is speaking to a psychiatrist,” he says. “And that makes a big impression on them.”

Finding that the world is not what it seemed in childhood--that it is unfair and full of disappointment, that people say things they don’t mean and don’t mean what they say, that you cannot control what other people do--is one of the biggest blows of young adulthood. “If you look around you, the world is just like that,” says Beverly Nunez, 17, who is one of Goldyn’s students. “People say, ‘Hi, how are you,’ and they don’t really care. You’re just supposed to say that kind of stuff, but you don’t really mean it.”

The imperfection of human nature is a time-honored literary theme, but few books capture the pain of its discovery as viscerally as “Catcher.” Insomniac, sweaty, unable to eat or light anywhere for very long, Holden wanders through New York seeking one honest moment, needled and impeded by his own relentlessly witty insights.

At University High School in Los Angeles, every 10th-grader is assigned “Catcher,” and, according to English teacher Gretchen Clark, while some express disappointment that “nothing happens,” most are delighted to find a protagonist who speaks and thinks like them. “It stands alone,” Clark says. “There are other books kids can relate to--'Of Mice and Men,’ ‘Lord of the Flies'--but this book remains unique.”

Her fiance, she says, remembers how a teacher recommended the book to him, as solace during a rough patch in his life. “It was a revelation for him,” she says, “an awareness that he wasn’t alone. He has never forgotten that teacher.”

In the 30 years she has taught English, Clark says she has seen that revelation repeated over and over. She didn’t read the book until graduate school--"I went to Catholic school,” she says, “and it wasn’t on our list. I wish I had been able to read it as a teen. The concept of phoniness is just so brilliant.”

In Salinger’s work, the sordid fen of the grownup world can be negotiated safely only with the aid of one’s sibling. His reverence for the sibling bond may have reached its peak in the novella “Zooey” (prompting Mary McCarthy to accuse him of familial fetishism), but nowhere is it stronger than in “Catcher.” Having lost his beloved Allie to cancer and elder brother D.B. to Hollywood, Holden clings to Phoebe, and their mutual devotion continues to resonate even with millennial siblings.

Nunez, who recently gave a report on “Catcher” for her advanced placement English class, says she was drawn to the relationship between Holden and Phoebe. “She is so great because she really listens to what he’s saying. He feels like no one has time for him or listens, but she does and she kinda keeps him sane for a while.”

The sibling bond also touched Dan Kaufman, 13, a student at Horace Mann Middle School in Los Angeles, who recently read the book for the first time. “I thought his relationship with his sister was really moving,” he says. He also identified with Holden’s academic problems. Dan says he wasn’t doing very well in school until fifth grade and so he really related to Holden’s feelings of isolation. “He doesn’t have a whole lot of friends because he’s not doing so good in school. And I could really relate.”

Neither Dan nor his 17-year-old sister, Anna, who attends Beverly Hills High, found the book depressing at all. “It’s about a breakdown,” says Dan, “but also a breakthrough.”

The fact that it is 50 years old seems to deter no one at all. “Oh it could happen today,” says Anna. “I mean there might be some safety issues--I’m not sure a kid could just take off through New York in the same way, but the general idea is still relevant.”

“I think by the next generation we may have some trouble explaining what a 45 [record] is,” says Goldyn with a laugh, adding that the central metaphor of the book--Holden’s desire to save children, and the purity of childhood, from disappearing--may become harder to teach. “The extended metaphor of the catcher in the rye is getting beyond some kids. We don’t teach metaphor as we used to, which is a shame. But there is so much the book offers, I can’t imagine it will ever be replaced.”

“What attracted me to it when I was younger was the voice, I thought it was really authentic,” says Anna, who read it the first time “a long, long time ago, when I was 12" and then again in ninth grade. She says she’s glad she read it again when she was older because she missed a few things the first time around.

That’s what makes it such a perfect staple for study, says Goldyn. “You can read it in seventh or eighth grade, on one level, because the vocabulary is not that sophisticated. And then you can read it again and again and find new meanings. I wish every student I had had read ‘Catcher’ in the seventh grade. Then they’d be ready to learn so much more.”

Like Clark, Goldyn didn’t read the book until he was in his 20s, which he also deeply regrets. But like millions of other adults, he finds himself in Holden as easily as any 16-year-old.

“Those feelings don’t go away,” he says. “At least not completely.”

Even in adulthood, Holden’s voice echoes. For the older reader, his journey is every jumpy binge, every sleepless night when flight, sex and drunken 2 a.m. phone calls seemed the only way to keep the world from falling apart.

None of which works, as Holden discovers while watching Phoebe in her blue coat. You can’t run from yourself, and his fatal flaw is that he is guilty of many of the sins he deplores, that he is just one of the rest of us, children running heedless through the rye. The constant nagging awareness that he is doing exactly what he hates in others is the cause of his breakdown, and his immortality.

“I liked how hypocritical he was,” says Jenny Craig, a 16-year-old from Cypress, who read the book two or three years ago. “Because that’s how people are. People who say it’s depressing just don’t get it. It’s a coming-of-age book. He just has to find his way. And he will. Eventually.”