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The cultural legacy of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’


“People always clap for the wrong things.” – J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.

It is perhaps telling that the phrase that J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye helped to popularise was “screw up”. These days, that term is even in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it comes with the concise definition: “To make something go wrong.” Now, it certainly would be the harshest criticism of all to say that the 1951 novel screwed up culture entirely, but it is a mark of the text’s lasting mystique that there is a definite whiff of that lingering the welter of its pungent societal miasma.

Part angsty juvenile drivel, part visceral cutting prose, the book remains as confounding as ever, but there is no getting away from the fact that Salinger certainly hit upon something given that it is still pried at today. The synopsis may be vague but that has helped it permeate—soaking like a cloud as opposed to a concentrated storm. In brief, it is about an angry teen battling against the rewards of conformity and trying to drift into adult society like a square peg in a hole that isn’t even there. If that disquietude of a kid who doesn’t really know what he is, but he is certain that he’s not that, sounds like the entirety of MTV, pop-punk, Nirvana and so on, that’s because it is. 

The triumph of the novel and the reason for its influential longevity exists in the simple fact that it changed the way that the youth are portrayed in fiction. Suddenly, the notion of American adolescence was touched upon and rendered three-dimensional, albeit that depth was largely coloured a shade of dower grey. Neither hero nor anti-hero, just a humourless kid, the idea of the teen as a societal iconoclast was borne from these pages. 

In 1960, a teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma thought it would be a good idea to get kids to engage with the sort of prose that they could finally identify with. She was almost immediately fired when conservative parents discovered the various “fuck you’s” in the book. In fact, it even contains the following extract: “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world. It’s impossible.” While she was later reinstated, this incident led to the book being the most censored high school text in the United States right up until 1982. 

However, the cat was out of the bag, and nothing causes a wildfire to spread quite like trying to cover it up. All of a sudden, by 1965, you had youngsters like Jim Morrison of The Doors, extolling: “I’m interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that appears to have no meaning. It seems to me to be the road to freedom.” Those words could’ve just as easily come straight from the novel’s protagonist Holden Caulfield.  

On the one hand, this foretold a simple cultural change: kids wanted their own realistic stories. But kids also had their own ideals. Although Caulfield isn’t sure exactly what he’s after in the novel, he is still after something. This notion of iconoclasm would later come to fruition only five years after the best-seller was published when James Dean gave the idea a cooler, commercial face. 

A decade earlier, the leading Hollywood frontman had been Humphrey Bogart. When he starred in Casablanca, he was 43. This was standard fare for Hollywood in that era. Society was stern, kids were being shipped off to slaughter in their droves in wars beyond reconciliation and there was very little cause for playfulness. Men in smart suits with furrowed brows and well-dressed women with their wits self-evidently about them were almost a comforting reflection of the backbone of society for the beleaguered masses in need of some gentle entertainment. 

However, Salinger himself was one of the sorry masses shipped off to witness atrocities, and like many others, he came back wondering, ‘Well what is so good about a backbone of society that could let that happen?’ Teens at the time in America when Catcher’ was published in 1951 had to routinely embark on ‘nuclear drills’ by hiding under their school desks during the ensuing Cold War. This bred a mentality that the days of watching the old suited icons were over and Jack Kerouac, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Little Richard and a thousand others said ‘out with the old and in with the new’.

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When asked to define the ‘Beat Generation’, Jack Kerouac simply used one word: “Sympathetic.” The era of stern folks in nice hats seemed to be over, in came pop culture and the zeitgeist of bohemians. And as William S. Burroughs wrote: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.” Almost inadvertently, Salinger’s less than masterfully written novel had implemented a cultural change.

Soon a boy inspired by all of this unfurling art movement would put a fine point on it:

“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.”

Prior to penning that fateful verse, when the wheels of youth-driven pop culture were already in motion, Bob Dylan was a young man of 14 years and in 1955, director Richard Brooks decided to imbue his next film with the rising aura of rock ‘n’ roll. Thus, for Blackboard Jungle, he sought the talents of Bill Haley and the Comets to colour his feature with their rockabilly ways.

Dylan and his high school friend Leroy Hoikkala were lucky enough to witness Blackboard Jungle in the cinema and Hoikkala recalls in Dylan A Biography: “Bob couldn’t believe it. We were walking home past the Alice School, and he kept saying, ‘This is really great! This is exactly what we’ve been trying to tell people about ourselves!’” Less than ten years later, Dylan would extol the same revealing virtues of a generation determined to go about things their own way.

Hoikkala opines that Dylan seemed to think “maybe they’ll believe us,” as though the penny had dropped that you could use a cultural voice for change after all. He adds: “Looking back that film really changed our lives because, for the first time, we felt like it was talking directly to us.” Dylan would soon achieve that same feat to such a profuse extent that he was dubbed the singular ‘Voice of a Generation’ (a token he despises). Salinger’s best-seller had similarly shaken up the youth just a handful of years earlier.

However, all of this had an underlying cataclysm. Not all the mothers and fathers throughout the land were ready to join the liberating march of change. They liked things the way they were, and they certainly didn’t like the foul book with abhorrent language about some dumb, useless kid who defiled religion. ‘Get it banned’, they demanded. For the most part, it was—in some schools, the book was entirely forbidden. And these parents didn’t much care for the scruffy vagabond that the book helped to spawn who was calling America worse than shit and saying that they ought to lend a hand cleaning up the mess they’d made. 

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Thus, culture became a battleground, and it has remained that way ever since. It was only in 2019 that a Nashville Catholic School banned Harry Potter books for their depiction of “actual curses and spells”. Those aren’t actual curses and spells, a rational mind might argue, that’s a specky character in a book saying words that J.K Rowling made up for loads of money. But rationality often goes out of the window when it comes to the great cultural debate. 

Why then, did this piece open with some notion that The Catcher in the Rye screwed things up, if it brought about liberating change, amplified the voice of the youth and helped to propel pop culture? Well, two reasons really; the first being that it simply isn’t all that great of a book. It doesn’t have the lustrous prose of the On The Roads that followed or the gripping colour of something like Junky or even the joie de vivre of the British equivalent, Sunday Night & Saturday Morning. In fact, Catcher in the Rye has nearly always struggled with critical discerning. 

When the ultimate act of youthful iconoclasm came to the fore in the form of punk, critic Charley Walters of Rolling Stone took a swipe at the Sex Pistols first single. “The music is overly simplistic and rudimentary,” he correctly wrote in the same way a spade review might say that it is only good for digging. Before adding for good measure, “It’s also not very good.” Certainly, ‘Pretty Vacant’ is not for everyone, however, the unique thing about this review is that it unironically defines the point of punk with the criticism that it bestows.

Catcher on the Rye, on the other hand, might be the biggest proto-punk icon in culture, but it’s not missing the point to challenge its quality, because the essential ingredient it lacked that the musical punk provided was a knowing nod and the visceral edge a wry smile. This is the second issue with the text, it was dark and challenging almost unabatingly so. Thus, it was no surprise that conservative folks in old-style hats and coats were at its throat. 

And then their irrational concerns came to fateful fruition as Mark David Chapman clutched a copy of the book before killing John Lennon. Of course, that wasn’t the fault of the book; that would be like blaming Karl Benz for a speed freak getting into a car crash. However, it is a mark of the unreconciled disquieted culture disparities that have raged ever since. Thus, the book certainly didn’t screw everything up, but there is a definite whiff of that lingering in the welter of its pungent societal miasma.