Salinger’s Holden Caulfield Turns 50
By Jody Ewing
August 9, 2001
As a rebellious teenager in “The Catcher in the Rye,” Holden Caulfield professes: “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.”
It certainly doesn’t. Especially when the author happens to be J.D. Salinger: war hero, recluse, Hindu-Buddhist, manic-depressive, U.S. counterintelligence agent, and perhaps one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” and sales are just as steady as when Holden Caulfield first infiltrated adolescent lives. Salinger’s first novel about an insurgent schoolboy and his romantic ideals became an international bestseller and continues to sell over 250,000 copies each year. It has never been out of print.
“This last week we sold out, and just put it on the order list again,” said Barb Barnett, Manager of Book People at Marketplace Shopping Centre. “It goes in spurts depending on which school is reading it, but with the 50th anniversary, we’re seeing more sales.”
Hanne Larsen, Manager of Waldenbooks at Southern Hills Mall, says the book isn’t selling more than usual, but that it always sells well. “It sells continuously,” Larsen says. “Schools use it all the time, and it’s a book we sell at least a copy a week on a regular basis.”
What is it about this oft-banned cult favorite that keeps readers turning the pages and teachers listing it on their syllabus?
“‘Catcher in the Rye’ is sort of like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,'” says Barnett, “in that it’s often the first classic that you really just love. You kind of fall in love with it.” It’s a nice coming-of-age story, says Barnett, that just about everybody can identify with in some way or another.
The story revolves around a few short days in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, a rich kid from New York’s upper east side who has just been expelled once again from a tony private prep school. He goes to live in a hotel, hires a prostitute and drinks himself silly, wanders about town and ponders a life that isn’t quite what he imagined. With slang as edgy today as when first published, it is the coming-of-age story against which all others are measured.
Measuring its value in the classroom wasn’t always that easy.
Jerry Laffey, a former English teacher who retired in 1998 after 35 years in the classroom, was not allowed to use the book when he first began teaching in Onawa in 1963.
“I was not allowed to use it,” Laffey said. “Mr. Emery, who was principal then, had not yet read the book. At first he said he didn’t see any problem with it, but then he took it home and read it. He came back and said ‘I don’t think we’re ready for that yet.'”
Laffey said that the book was being read in the cities, but that Midwestern small towns were more conservative in their viewpoints then. Rather than raise somebody’s dander, he said, he didn’t fight the issue.
“There was never a ban on anybody reading it,” he said, “although we did not have it in the school library in those days. They could pick it up downtown, or they could read it for an outside reading book.”
Laffey said he felt at the time, it was a good book for people that age to relate to, and still feels it’s important today. Waldenbooks’ Larsen agrees.
“It has influenced today’s literature a lot,” says Larsen. “The story line is ever catching, ever appropriate. It’s always in with time in one way or another.”
Born in Manhattan in 1919 to a prosperous Jewish father and Irish Catholic mother, Jerome David Salinger made his writing debut in “Story” magazine at the age of 21. He published short stories throughout the next decade, but after “The Catcher in the Rye,” he went into hiding. He became obsessive about his reclusivity, refusing almost all interviews and rarely going out in public. It fueled public interest even more. He has not published a book in 36 years, though rumors often speculate that he works under a pseudonym or will publish another novel.
In a rare interview with “New York Times” writer Lacey Fosburgh in 1974, Salinger said, “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 love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
That well-guarded privacy was shattered last year when his daughter Margaret published “Dream Catcher,” a tell-all memoir that exposed her father as someone who drank his own urine, spoke in tongues, held his wife as a “virtual prisoner” and slept with teenage girls. Amazon.com called the book “balanced, thorough, and honest — sometimes to a fault,” and many reviewers agreed.
In typical fashion, Salinger remained silent about his daughter’s book and has made no public comment. He lives in seclusion in New Hampshire with his third wife, a nurse in her 30s. Whether he continues to write is anybody’s guess, despite the success of “The Catcher in the Rye.”
“Not many 50-year-old books are still selling like this one is,” says Larsen. “Obviously it’s done a lot.”
Laffey agrees. “I’m sure as I look back to the ’60s, it was a shocker of the times,” he said. “But I think some of the problems that he (Holden Caulfield) faces, and decisions that he makes are still as relevant to young people today as they were when the book was written.”
This article first appeared in the Weekender on August 9, 2001.