The infamously famous The Catcher in the Rye, written by the man shrouded in mystery, JD Salinger, is one that can be found in the corner of any self-proclaimed intellectual’s graded bookshelf. This sardonic narrative of the life of an angst-filled, privileged American teen may seem counter-productive to the traditional aim of ‘influencing’ its readers, but no one can argue that the book is indeed important.
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But before we delve into the book, let’s have a look at the man who penned it down several difficult decades ago. JD Salinger was a half-Jewish, half-Catholic veteran who attended the military academy before fighting in the Second World War. According to the New Republic, some of his old classmates described him as a man whose conversation “was laced with sarcasm”, but by others’ standards, he was just “a regular guy”. A perfectionist in some ways, his teachers thought of him as “quiet, thoughtful and always anxious to please.”
Salinger’s foray into the military world was preceded by his rather sallow journey through academia. Failing out of prep school, where he had a difficult relationship with his classmates, a lot of his childhood was projected into Holden Caulfield, the protagonist to his famous book. However, his realistic outlook to the highs and lows of a teenager’s life is not limited to a confused teenage audience. His book has been deemed a must-read by some of the world’s greatest critics, because it resonates the themes of “pulling through against all odds” and “loving and loathing, rationally and irrationally” in all events and instances.
Many have drawn parallels between Holden and Salinger himself, with the latter admitting in an interview with a high school reporter – the only interview he ever gave – “My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book.” Holden’s narrative of human interactions, relationships, and self-indulgences possibly stems from Salinger’s own experiences after being back to civilian life following the throes of the bloodiest war in history.
The Catcher in the Rye is one of the few books that have persistently hovered around the bestseller lists since its initial publication in 1951. On Salinger’s 97th birthday, here are a few lessons about life and relationships that this infamous novel propagates.
Author Dr Sarah Graham called the book “the first novel of the modern teenage years”. This is because the book gave a new kind of identity to teenagers across the world, without labelling them as ‘young adults’, which earlier literature often did. The book had been introduced in several American school-curriculums for older students to understand that the detachment, despondency, and desperation for the unknown their teenage years was a natural tendency of that age. It made them feel that their confusion was being acknowledged and well-worded. Today, this sense of disorderly kinsmanship can be felt across all its readers, uniting the bridge across the ages.
Holden has often been classified as ‘anti-social’ by the book’s critics, considering his blatant distaste for most of the people he would come to meet. However, his love for his younger sister, and a few chosen friends, family, and mentors was carefully cultivated by him, because he understood the depth and eternal nature of these relationships. Even at his worst, he secretly pledged his fierce loyalty for these same people and was protective to a fault, when it came to matters involving them.
Holden may have been a smooth-talking, arrogant, and compulsive liar when it came to ‘phony interactions’ (as he would put it), but when it came to himself, he never strayed from telling it how it is. Although he was the epitomised overthinker, his motto had always been, “Know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly.” He abhorred human discrepancies when it came to matters of competition and the rat-race for money. To him, it was always important for individuals to know their worth and work by it, instead of blowing themselves up to match the size of their egos.
Human beings, by nature, take a second to get attached to something or someone and an eternity to let that same thing go. And this is the reason for so many conflicts – be it a heartbroken existence or a war pledged from ancestral ego. For Holden, the importance of closing a chapter with dead-end clarity was a way forward in progress. One of his most quoted lines from the book reads, “I don't care if it's a sad good-bye or a bad good-bye, but when I leave a place I like to know I'm leaving it. If you don't, you feel even worse.”
JD Salinger may have reached his peak with The Catcher in the Rye, but he was far from ready to take the spotlight. In his own style, he tried to tell the world that it was okay to be confused, angry, and frightened at times because not only did that make one human, there was always a solution to each of these emotions. As we remember him fondly today, we raise a toast to his legacy in Holden, the angry young man who cared.