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Why 'Rye' endures: The Little Red Book of Adolescence

Even 50 years later, the tortured protagonist in J.D. Salinger's masterpiece strikes a chord of truth with teenagers and young adults.

July 01, 2001|Mary McNamara | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Fifty years ago, just before winter break, 16-year-old Holden Caulfield got kicked out of Pencey Prepatory School because he was flunking every class but English. It was his fourth expulsion. So instead of waiting for the vacation to officially begin, he decided to hightail it home to New York and get a hotel room where he could "take it easy" for a few days before facing his parents.

The world would never be the same again.

Swinging wildly between sarcastic contempt--for Ivy League phonies "in their goddamn checkered vests, for the goddamn movies," for the word "grand"--and sentimental hope sparked by women and their suitcases, boring guys who are secretly terrific whistlers, by his dead brother Allie and living sister Phoebe, Holden lurches through an internal odyssey that eventually leads him home.

"The Catcher in the Rye," J.D. Salinger's first and only full-length novel, debuted in July 1951. Reviews were mixed-- New York Times reviewer James Stern, in an embarrassing effort to mimic what would become an iconic voice, claimed "this Salinger, he's a short story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book, though, it's too long.... And he should have cut out a lot about these jerks and all at that crumby school."

Others found Holden's expletive-heavy vocabulary, his sexual frankness and his generally bad attitude reprehensible. Periodically condemned as pornographic, perverse, morbid and salacious, "The Catcher in the Rye" has been banned from as many bookshelves as that other all-American symbol of subversive thought, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Which may have done much to enhance the book's almost immediate popularity with teens and young adults. But even without the good/bad press, "Catcher" was destined for longevity. For young adults, Holden's vain, and often contradictory, crusade against conformity and phoniness in the adult world was the only true literary reflection of their lives. Within a decade, it had become the manifesto of youth, the little red book of the rising counterculture.

And so it remains. "Catcher" is taught in schools across the country from eighth grade through college, where, according to teachers and students, its power and popularity remain unflagging.

"I never found a kid who didn't love Holden," says Rose Gilbert, an English teacher at Palisades High. Gilbert has taught "Catcher" since the mid-'50s, she says, and the themes of the book are just as relevant today as they were when it was first published. "The pressures on kids to achieve are even worse now," she says. "The Stanford 9, tests every minute, the pressure to conform in looks and behavior. All the things that cause Holden's breakdown are right there in front of them."

Little, Brown has sold more than 60 million copies of "The Catcher in the Rye" since 1951; annual sales remain steady at a quarter of a million a year. Its place in the world of letters is far from static--Janet Malcolm recently wrote a long and impassioned argument that his later book "Franny and Zooey" rather than "Catcher" is Salinger's masterpiece. Rare copies of the bootlegged "J.D. Salinger: The Complete Uncollected Short Stories" are passed from fan to fan. (If nothing else, these rather mediocre stories illuminate the importance of craftsmanship and patience. Three involve early permutations of the Caulfield family and prove that Holden did not simply appear to Salinger in a dream, fully formed--every pejorative was carefully chosen, every "boy" and "lousy" and "if you want to know the truth" meticulously placed to create the book's seamless monologue.)

Holden's voice--direct, irreverent, self-referential--reinvented the coming-of-age novel, and cleared shelf space for the "young adult" works of S.E. Hinton, Paul Zinder, even Judy Blume. The influence of that voice is apparent even on the current bestsellers list. With its relentless vacillations between self-doubt and self-aggrandizement, Dave Egger's "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" reads like a messy sequel in which Holden's parents have had their famous two hemorrhages apiece, leaving him and Phoebe to raise one another.

There are hundreds of Web sites devoted to Holden Caulfield, even more to his author, whose personal eccentricities, including a perpetual dismissal of his many fans, have made him a tantalizing figure. Since the early '60s, he has lived in semi-isolation. He does not give interviews or appear publicly, neither has he published any of the continuing "Glass" chronicles it is rumored he has been working on for many years. More recently, he refused to be smoked out by the unflattering, tell-all memoirs of former lover Joyce Maynard and daughter Margaret or even by Maynard's auctioning off of letters he wrote her during their courtship. ( Los Angeles philanthropist Peter Norton bought the letters and returned them to Salinger.)

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