The writer of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ (1951), Jerome David Salinger was born in New York on 1 January, 1919. During the 40’s he published about 20 stories that he has not allowed to be collected. Salinger has said in an interview that he is still writing constantly, but considers publication to be a ‘terrible invasion’ of his privacy.
Despite his limited body of work, Salinger has been an extremely popular American fiction writer among serious young persons and many adults because of the way in which he has served as a spokesman for the feelings of his generation. ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ glorifies the simple life of the child and the countryside as compared to the corruption and hypocrisy of the urban adult.
There is a parallel novel by Mark Twain ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’. Like Holden, Huck Finn is a noble, innocent child who rebels against the values of the adult society in which he lives. Both stories include a lot of humour combined with a serious theme. Both boys try to run away from a world they cannot adapt to.
Since 1953 he has been living in New Hampshire in a place which resembles Holden’s dream of ‘a little cabin … near the woods, but not right in them.’
Holden Caulfield, the main character of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, is a New York boy of seventeen (‘well, almost seventeen’) who is sent home from boarding school because he ‘does not apply himself’. He dare not tell his parents and because he has just received a sizeable amount of pocket money from his grandmother he can afford to roam around New York for a few days and stay the night in hotels. The book is one of the most famous of the last century; it is beautifully and almost perfectly written and millions have read it with pleasure.
In a deeper sense Catcher is a plea for ‘The Genuine’. During his wanderings Holden meets all kinds of people who, each in their own way, have denied ‘The Genuine’ and have become ‘phoney’; fellow students who watch a stupid football game; a pianist who has been tempted into virtuosity and the audience that applauds it; pastors who are no longer able to speak in a normal voice; his brother, who once wrote such beautiful stories but now prostitutes himself in Hollywood’s filmmaking industry. Holden has a dream in which he stands in a cornfield, on the edge of a cliff. Thousands of little kids are playing there. ‘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’. In fact he wants them to remain pure and unspoilt in their childhood innocence.
Holden’s dream arises when Phoebe challenges him to tell her what he would like to be. He remembered seeing a little boy walking along the street with his parents; ‘They looked sort of poor. The father had on one of those pearl-gray hats that poor guys wear a lot when they want to look sharp.’ The little boy was walking in the gutter next to the sidewalk singing a little song, and Holden moved closer to him to hear what he was singing: ‘… if a body catch a body coming through the rye …’
That is what makes the title so exquisite: it encapsulates the message (save the childlike, the genuine), and at the same time the uniqueness of Holden. Who else would make a point of moving closer to that little boy specifically to hear what he is singing?
Although he is somewhat lonely, and finds it difficult to express his love, Holden Caulfield himself is not a sad person, the world he perceives is sad. That is what principally makes ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ such a beautiful book.