Top Ten Things You Must Know About J.D. Salinger & The Catcher in the Rye: Top Ten Facts About J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
Holden Caulfield would have called up Isak Dinesen, Ring Lardner, and Thomas Hardy. The protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden continues to steal the hearts of his readers young and old over fifty years after the book was first published. With his frequent use of the word “goddam” and his deep respect for childhood innocence, Holden appeals to those of us who question “phonies” and hope to never become one ourselves.
Those who feel the urge to call upon J.D. Salinger, though, are out of luck. Salinger died on January 27, 2010 at the age of ninety-one. Even if you’d had the chance, though, Salinger was a recluse much of his life, having felt overwhelmed by the success of his one and only published novel, The Catcher in the Rye.
The book and its author live on, though. After a ten-year struggle to get the book published, Salinger saw his short novel become a worldwide success, a classic and canonized work. Despite controversies and book-bannings across the nation, Holden’s story continues to be told and loved. The seventeen-year-old critic, runaway, and seeker is alive in every reader that encounters him. Here are ten things you may not have known about Holden, J.D. Salinger, and The Catcher in the Rye:
It Almost Didn’t Make It
J.D. Salinger was not a stranger to rejection and calls for rewrites upon rewrites. His short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” for example, underwent a year of editing after The New Yorker’s fiction editor William Maxwell, albeit intrigued, insisted that the story in its original state was unreadable and beyond comprehension of even the most adroit readers. After a year of editing, the published version received immediate acclaim and Salinger began climbing the rungs of the literary ladder.
Salinger’s canonical work The Catcher in the Rye was no exception to the rigorous editing Salinger’s other works went through. The novel had to face plenty of rejection before becoming the iconic work it is today. Despite being a regular contributor to The New Yorker, Salinger was told the character of Holden was just too unbelievable. They refused to run excerpts of the book. As a letter concerning “The Boy in the People Shooting Hat” said,
I’m afraid I’m incapable of expressing adequately and convincingly our [the New Yorker’s] distress at having to send it back. It has passages that are brilliant and moving and effective, but we feel that on the whole it’s pretty shocking for a magazine like ours.
They went on to criticize the story specifically:
Possibly the development of the theme of this story requires more space. Actually, we feel that we don’t know the central character well enough.
When the book was finally published in 1951, Salinger had worked on it for a decade! Holden, in the final version, became one of the most relatable adolescent characters of all time.
Success Wasn’t So Sweet
Catcher faced an absolute flood of success, shortly after being published. It sold out, became a Book of the Month publication, and would go on to sell over 65 million copies in nearly all of the world’s languages. Although Salinger continued to write, his entire collection of published work consists of one novel plus thirteen short stories, all written before 1959. If you’re looking to read an anthology of an author in a short period of time, Salinger is your guy.
Shortly after Catcher’s snowball success, Salinger began to withdraw from the public eye. In 1953, he relocated from bustling and busy New York to the ever-quiet Cornish, New Hampshire. Although he socialized for a while, specifically with high school students, he pulled away even more after a small editorial piece was run in the city newspaper. He had dealt with too much unwanted attention from legal issues with a biographer to privacy infringement in the release of two memoirs, one written by his daughter and one written by an ex-lover. Salinger was tired of being in the public eye, and being a recluse was something he had control over.
Still, he continued to write. In an interview with The New York Times, Salinger remarked,
There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. … It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure. … I don’t necessarily intend to publish posthumously, but I do like to write for myself. … I pay for this kind of attitude. I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man. But all I’m doing is trying to protect myself and my work.
Shortly after the interview, in 1980, Salinger completely stopped all responses to interview requests and lived the rest of his life in relative silence.
Banned Book Is An Understatement
Salinger’s masterpiece has ranged from a required reading list pick to a banned book pick to be flushed from schools.
In 1960, an Oklahoman high school fired an English teacher for assigning the book to a class of eleventh graders. Although the teacher eventually got his job back, the book was taken off the required books list. Others in Ohio claimed the book was anti-white and worked to have it banned. Reasons for banning the book have ranged from morality problems to violence to offensive language to the occult to a secret communist plot. The National Organization for Decent Literature was against it, a man in Issaquah, Washington deemed it communist and had it banned, and parents in California said it threatened patriotism and religious belief. In general, the book was viewed as threatening to the innocence of sweet children.
Salinger, famous for writing from the perspective of adolescents and preferring their company over that of adults, responded to the bans:
I’m aware that many of my friends will be saddened and shocked, or shock-saddened, over some of the chapters in The Catcher in the Rye. Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all my best friends are children. It’s almost unbearable for me to realize that my book will be kept on a shelf out of their reach.
After his expulsion from school, Holden Caulfield explores a real world that houses alcoholism, cigarette smoke, mental breakdowns, and cuss word after cuss word. He is rebellious, yes, but he also questions why things are the way they are. Despite the naysayers, Catcher lives on.
Holden Had Friends Doing Hard Time
The book gained infamy from more than disgruntled parents and citizens. For whatever reason, Holden’s rebellion and frequent goddams appealed to a collection of criminals.
The first among them was John Lennon’s assassin. He was seen reading through the book while being arrested after committing the heinous crime. Mark David Chapman later claimed that the book held the answer as to why he had killed Lennon. Oddly enough, Chapman believed that after killing Lennon, he would take on the soul of Holden. He had even attempted to change his legal name to Holden Caulfield.
Although he realized he had not turned into Caulfield after the shooting, Chapman continued to speak in a Holden-esque style, saying:
I have two parts in me. The big part is very kind; the children I worked with will tell you that. I have a small part in me that cannot understand the world and what goes on in it. I did not want to kill anybody and I really don’t know why I did it.
Chapman wasn’t the only Holden fan. John Hinckley Jr., a man who attempted an assassination of Ronald Reagan, had a copy of the novel in his hotel room. The stalker and murderer of Rebecca Schaeffer, Robert John Bardo, was also a fan of the book. He had the book with him when he committed the crime.
It’s Got Catchphrases Galore!
You know you really, really love a book when you start talking like the protagonist or imagining what he would say in certain situations. Holden Caulfield, thanks to his numerous catchphrases, is one such character. Motifs in stories can range from gorgeous images to thought-provoking patterns to interesting sounds. They can also just be cuss words.
Not a fan of the institution or the adults in charge of it, Holden uses “phony” in a variety of forms from “phonies” to “phoniest” a grand total of 49 times.
“Stupid” clocks in at 46 times.
“Lousy” shows up 50 times.
“Crazy” makes an appearance 77 times.
“Hell” in its various forms from “helluva” to “hellaya” to “suave as hell” to “cold and old and mad as hell” is used over 100 times.
“Goddam” is the real kicker: Holden’s favorite word is uttered 245 times. That’s much more than one goddam per page!
On the other hand, happy shows up 7 times.
But really, if we’re being real, Holden has the average vocabulary of a seventeen-year-old guy. Compared to his contemporaries, he may be viewed as lacking in an offensive vocabulary, as there are plenty of more offensive words he uses rarely or not at all.
The Title Of The Catcher In The Rye Is Derived From Holden’s Misunderstanding Of Robert Burns’ “Comin’ Thro’ The Rye.”
Robert Burns’ “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” was originally a children’s song written in 1782. With its archaic Scottish lyrics, the meaning of the song may be completely missed or misconstrued by the modern reader:
O, Jenny’s a’ weet, poor body,
Jenny’s seldom dry:
She draigl’t a’ her petticoatie,
Comin thro’ the rye!
Comin thro’ the rye, poor body,
Comin thro’ the rye,
She draigl’t a’ her petticoatie,
Comin thro’ the rye!
Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro’ the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?
Holden misheard the lyrics as “If a body catch a body,” rather than “If a body meet a body.” Holden imagined the “catcher in the rye” was someone who saved children from falling over “some crazy cliff” at the end of a large field of rye. Holden wanted to be this person, dreamed that it was his destiny, as falling over the cliff meant to him entering the dull and soul-crushing world of adults who could never be trusted, as seemingly all of them were “phonies.”
Interestingly, the song is meant for children’s enjoyment. Conversely, though, its subject matter, when translated from the Scottish dialect, is somewhere along the lines of whether casual sex (“meeting a body”) is okay or not (“need a body cry?”). Holden himself was unsure of the answer to that question, as he was interested in sex but did not want to degrade the body of a girl. Holden’s fear of adulthood pushed him to sing the song but ignore its meaning, literally and figuratively.
A Film Adaptation Is Goddamn Near-Impossible
If you’re an avid reader, you know the dread of seeing a beloved book butchered by Hollywood. You’re tempted to give it a chance when you see the trailer on the big screen, when critics promise it honors the novelist’s wishes, and when everybody else you know flocks to the theater to give it a shot. When you do, however, you see that the protagonist doesn’t look like the protagonist you built in your head. That favorite small scene of yours? It’s nowhere to be found. And that ending? That is not how it ended! The inner monologues, the numerous side plots, the timeline that spanned decades! None of it to be found. The Catcher on the Rye was, in many ways, a simple book. It follows a teenage boy for a handful of days as he wanders away from his private school. For many reasons, though, the book has never made its way to the silver screen.
Salinger himself explained in a letter written in 1957:
I keep saying this and nobody seems to agree, but The Catcher in the Rye is a very novelistic novel. There are readymade “scenes” – only a fool would deny that—but, for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener, his asides about gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons—in a word, his thoughts.
The writer went on to say,
And Holden Caulfield himself, in my undoubtedly super-biased opinion, is essentially unactable. A Sensitive, Intelligent, Talented Young Actor in a Reversible Coat wouldn’t be nearly enough. It would take someone with X to bring it off, and no very young man even if he has X quite knows what to do with it.
Until a young man with X appears, it seems the film is an impossibility. Already, Samuel Goldwyn, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Tobey Maguire, Leonardo di Caprio, Harvey Weinstein, and Steven Spielberg have all failed to bring an adaptation to life.
Holden And Salinger’s Influence Is Wide-Ranging
Numerous writers have admitted to not only being influenced by Salinger but being amazed by his style of writing and talent. Richard Yates described witnessing Salinger as groundbreaking, like nothing he’d witnessed before or after. As Harold Brodkey, an award-winning writer himself insisted, “His is the most influential body of work in English prose by anyone since Hemingway.” John Updike, a short story factory himself, credited Salinger with teaching him how to weave together various elements in stories.
Many literary critics have argued that Salinger’s voice, albeit silenced, has lived on in the books of his derivatives. Contributor to The New Yorker, Louis Menand claimed Catcher created a new genre in itself. Catcher has been rewritten in numerous forms: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero all appeal to those feeling alienated or lost with their own versions of Holden.
You Can Still See Salinger
If the book and handful of short stories weren’t enough for you, there’s a 2013 documentary out there waiting for you to discover more about the reclusive, mysterious, and genius J.D. Salinger. The film is Shane Salerno’s Salinger. Salinger was created in secret over a period of five years. It interviews famous folks ranging from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton to Danny DeVito and Martin Sheen. If you still need more to read, there’s a companion to the documentary: a 700-page biography co-written by Salerno and David Shields. Salinger’s life is summed up dramatically:
THE BOY WHO BECAME A REBEL. THE REBEL WHO BECAME A SOLDIER. THE SOLDIER WHO BECAME AN ICON. THE ICON WHO DISAPPEARED.
As the official website dramatically asked, “WHAT HAPPENED TO J.D. SALINGER?” The film premiered in 2014. Unfortunately, the film received a low score of 35% from Rotten Tomatoes and a weak 6.6 out of 10 on IMDB. Still, if you’re a true Salingerian, it’s a must.
1.There Could Be More To Come
According to a handful of sources, J.D. Salinger could posthumously release more work. Publications usually focused on serious and fact-checked stories like The Guardian and The New York Times can’t help but publish stories asking, “Will they ever be released? Leaked?” On the other hand, the quintessentially reclusive author remains reclusive: his family and publishers have refused to make any public statements concerning the documentary Salinger or any rumors it may have given life to. The documentary creator, on the other hand, claimed that there are instructions from Salinger to publish certain works after his death. According to Salerno, four new works are to be released between 2015 and 2020:
- A Counterintelligence Agent’s Diary about Salinger’s counter-intelligence work
- A World War II Love Story about his marriage to a Nazi collaborator after the war
- A Religious Manual exploring his religion
- The Complete Chronical of the Glass Family with five stories featuring a recurring character
If this is true, we should find out any minute now. Whether Salerno’s claims are true or not, it is clear that Salinger has formed a long-lasting legacy. Regardless of whether four more publications make their way into the public sphere, Salinger has become a classic author, and his novel has become a part of the literary canon.
Salinger was a mystery then, and he’s a mystery now. Still, he lives on in the character of Holden Caulfield, the questioning, complaining, but endearing nonconformist who fears adults and respects kids. Although Caulfield’s legacy may be questioned by those who want to keep their children away from books filled with cuss words and references to dirty things, ultimately, Holden aimed to protect them. As he said himself,
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 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.
Holden may have resonated with a few psychopaths, but chances are, he resonated with many more children and young adults who were struggling just as he was to understand a world of “phonies.” When parents are too strict, when teachers are too demanding, and when the world is too scary or unwelcoming, Holden is there, The Catcher in the Rye.