‘How Do You Know What You’re Going to Do Until You Do It?’
J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye turned 70 this week, and it’s an anniversary worth celebrating. Since it was first published, The Catcher in the Rye has established itself as a coming-of-age novel central to modern American writing. From Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, there is a long line of books that owe much to Salinger’s influence.
Editors were initially skeptical about The Catcher in the Rye. Before it was published by Little, Brown and Company, The Catcher in the Rye was rejected by Harcourt, Brace. In 1951, The New Yorker, which had been regularly publishing Salinger’s short stories, did not think The Catcher in the Rye was good enough to print excerpts from it.
But the recognition The Catcher in the Rye has earned since its acceptance has of late become a double-edged sword. The recognition has often been used to dismiss the novel as a period piece, appropriate for the post-World War II generation but otherwise superficial. A 2019 essay on The Catcher in the Rye in the Guardian described Salinger’s narrator, Holden Caulfield, as a “grouchy young man with no real problems.”
The college students I teach don’t look on The Catcher in the Rye as a book to read in defiance of their parents. They know The Catcher in the Rye as a book their parents and their grandparents read as teenagers. Holden Caulfield gets little sympathy from them. They dismiss his complaints much as the Guardian did.