Is “The Catcher in the Rye” really a classic?

The Catcher in the Rye is one of the classic, coming of age novels that’s recommended for everyone to read, whether you’re a reader or not. J.D. Salinger is well known for this particular novel as Jane Austen is for Pride and Prejudice or F. Scott Fitzgerald is for The Great Gatsby.

The Catcher in the Rye is Salinger’s world-famous novel of disaffected youth. Holden Caulfield is a seventeen- year-old dropout who has just been kicked out of his fourth school. Navigating his way through the challenges of growing up, Holden dissects the “phony” aspects of society, and the “phonies” themselves: the headmaster whose affability depends on the wealth of the parents, his roommate who scores with girls using sickly-sweet affection.

Written with the clarity of a boy leaving childhood behind, The Catcher in the Rye explores the world with disarming frankness and a warm, affecting charisma which has made this novel a universally loved classic of twentieth-century literature.

J. D. Salinger was born in 1919 and died in January 2010. He grew up in New York City, and wrote short stories from an early age, but his breakthrough came in 1948 with the publication in The New Yorker of A Perfect Day for Bananafish. The Catcher in the Rye was his first and only novel, published in 1951. It remains one of the most translated, taught and reprinted texts, and has sold some 65 million copies.

catcher in the rye

Truthfully, this book has sat on my to-read shelf for a long time. With it’s reputation and praise, I always wanted to read it. Even more than that, I was always curious to what it was like – I’ve heard it mentioned numerous times through numerous books and people have always spoken about it with such high regard, marking it as a “must read”.

As a bibliophile, I can appreciate this work of literacy: the skill in the way it’s written, the prominence of the themes of the painfulness of growing up and the “phoniness” of the Adult world.  The way that Salinger has crafted this book is awe-inspiring as a writer.

However, surely I can’t be the only person who fails to understand why this book is considered a classic? The story was told over the span of a few days, and the plot failed to engross me the way that other stories and books have. I was expecting to be completely blown away by this novel, and was very disappointed to find out otherwise.

In saying this, I think the only way to fully be able to appreciate this story, and the only way to really consider it a classic, is to actually look at it, and it’s place, in the era in which it was released. In other words, it’s not really about the story itself, it’s about the context of the story.

The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 – post-WWII America. At this time, soldiers were returning home to their families, Americans had defeated two evil empires and children were only seen and not heard.

Obviously I wasn’t brought up in the 1960’s, and I (along with everyone else who didn’t) take for granted that now we celebrate and encourage expressing our individuality, rather than the “do as I say, not as I do” attitude of those days.

So – in this way – I think a lot of people looked up to Holden, because they related to him, understood and sympathised with him and where he was coming from. He came to symbolise all that is wrong with society in the sense of if you didn’t play by societies rules then they’ll knock you down.

It wouldn’t surprise me if when this first came out people thought that it was about time someone was this honest about the world we live in. As well as asking themselves: What is this world coming to? So, maybe, that’s why it’s a classic – it was a sign of an impending cultural revolution.

Even though I wasn’t totally grasped by the story, I did like the deeper message that I thought the book possessed: about saving innocence. Which is also a symbol of childhood. Holden simply wants to save other kids, including his sister, Phoebe, from the process of adolescence and future adulthood.

“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’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.” – J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.

At this point in the novel, Holden has slipped in quietly into his apartment and is speaking to Phoebe. After talking, arguing and making up, Phoebe asks him what it is he actually wants to do with this life, to which he reveals his fantasy of idealistic childhood and of his role as the protecter of innocence. It is in this, that the meaning behind the book’s title is revealed.

Holden has a cynical view of other people in the world, largely based on the idea that children are simple, kind and innocent while adults are superficial, liars and hypocritical. the very fact that he is having this conversation with Phoebe, who is a child yet anything other than simple and innocent, just shows the oversimplification of this view.

Holden knows this himself to a certain degree, saying that this idea is “crazy”, but he struggles to see the world in any other way. His catcher in the rye fantasy reflects his innocence, his belief in pure, uncorrupted youth, and his desire to protect that spirit.

However, it does bring to question Holden’s extreme disconnection from reality and his naïve view of the world.

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