- Author: J. D. Salinger (1919 – 2010)
- Rank: #28
- Published: 1951
- Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
- Pages: 214
- First Line: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
- Last Lines: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
- Acclaim: Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #64; All-TIME List; Le Monde’s Books of the Century #88
- ML Edition: #90 (1958)
- Film: none
- First Read: August, 1991
The Novel: There is no great book that more demands that it be read at a very specific point in life. If you come upon The Catcher in the Rye at the right point, as you slowly are coming out of your teenage years, slowly trying to make that horrible transition into adulthood, then this can change your life. It will make you realize that you are not alone, that there are others who have gone through what you have, that there might be someone out there who is just like you. But if you miss it, if you get into adulthood and look back and think, hey I never read The Catcher in the Rye, it will be too late. You will not make the same kind of connection with the novel and a chance will have been lost.
But from the first lines, Holden Caulfield becomes a part of the American mythos, a defining moment. This was what it was like to be a teenager in the 20th Century. He doesn’t gloss over the unlikeable parts of himself. He tells us straight out “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.” But he also lets us know that he’s not going to tell his whole goddam autobiography or anything. This is just a story of a few strange days in his life, the days that take him over the edge of the cliff and straight into the arms of those phonies he can’t stand and doesn’t trust.
When you’re young, aren’t they all phonies? And don’t we all wish we could get away for a few days and live this life that Holden manages to live – to be staying in the hotels of fifties New York City, ice skating with a pretty girl, sneaking into your old school and having enough respect for yourself and your past to want to wipe away all the scribbled fucks of the world. But of course Holden can’t cope with any of this, and even though we aren’t all privileged enough to enjoy the upper crust of society, he still manages to speak for us all. In fact, that is the most amazing thing. Looking at the other works in the small amount of published material that Salinger gave us before retreating away to his mountain hideaway, it is hard to get past the upper society intelligencia aspect of it all. Living all my life in the heart of upper education, I can relate to the Glasses through their brains, but I was always pushed a little away by the life they led. With Holden, I got none of that, and maybe that’s because at 16 I didn’t care so much about the class differences, but only about the fact that for the first time in my life, I was reading about someone who I felt could have been me, right down to the level of the nervous breakdown. Because so many of us as teenagers were veering close to those breakdowns, but we always wanted to believe we were so much more in control than we ever were.
Look at Holden’s brilliant moment where he proclaims his wish:
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.
This is pure fantasy, of course. Aside from the fact that Phoebe has already told him that he’s quoting the Burns poem incorrectly, the idea that anyone could look to Holden as their savior, even a child, is insane. Holden wants so much to be catching those kids because he knows how close to the edge of the cliff that he is, and thankfully Phoebe, sitting there on the carousel is his own catcher in the rye. We read and we take hope because though Holden clearly has much left to do before he will be walking those streets of New York again without someone very close by, at least the possibility still exists. So many don’t get someone to catch them, we can be glad for this story of someone who does find that someone, that there is hope for us all, and maybe that’s what draws so many teenagers to it. Because there is some hope at the end, and some hope that we don’t have to actually tell everybody about it once we have pulled back from the cliff. Because we do get that wonderful final warning about what telling a story like this can do:
About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.