Jason Pettus's Reviews > The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
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's review
Mar 21, 08

bookshelves: late-modernism, character-heavy, classic, hipster, ya
Read in March, 2008

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

The CCLaP 100: In which I read a hundred so-called "classics" for the first time, then write reports on whether they deserve the label
Review #10: The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger (1951)

The story in a nutshell:
Not so much of a traditional plot-based story, The Catcher in the Rye is instead a look at a 48-hour block in the life of an American teen named Holden Caulfield, a skinny and obnoxious kid who comes from a generally comfortable, decent family on the east coast, but who for some reason just seemingly can't get along with anyone or fit in anywhere. In fact, as the novel opens, Holden has just gotten kicked out of yet another private prep school; it is right before holiday, in fact, with his family expecting him home in two days anyway, so he's decided to just hoof it around the New York area for the next 48 hours and spend some time thinking about his life.

As a result, not much of note actually happens to Holden over the next two days -- he visits an old teacher he doesn't like very much, invites an ex-girlfriend he doesn't like very much to go traveling with him, eventually ends up in Manhattan, then back at his parents' place, and then finally an amusement park while entertaining his little sister. The main point of the book, then, is to try to understand Holden as a character and deeply flawed human; to watch the way he looks at life, to notice the way he idolizes his older brother, out in Hollywood and making a living as a screenwriter. Holden is both restless and old-fashioned, tender and cruel, someone who is sometimes blurting out uncomfortable truths and sometimes lying right to your face. And by the time we're done, hopefully we've learned something not only about him in particular but about teens in general, and especially the sense of alienation and standoffishness that comes to so many at that age no matter when in history we're talking about.

The argument for it being a classic:
The argument for this being a classic is a clean and simple one -- it is demonstrably the very first book in history to establish the "confessional young adult" genre, one that has grown in our modern times to accommodate tens of thousands of books and millions of grateful teen fans. Before Catcher in the Rye, its fans say, there were only two types of stories considered appropriate for younger readers -- either moralistic tales that very sternly taught right from wrong, or the kind of psuedo-science babble mysteries like I was mentioning last week, when I was reviewing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Salinger was the very first person to publish a book about a teen written from the teen's point of view himself, a very raw point of view that contains sex, filth, cursing galore, and all the other prurient stuff that comes with peeking inside a 16-year-old boy's head; it was a breakthrough of the Modernist era, fans claim, one of those seminal projects that broke the ground for all the naturalistic books and films in the '50s, '60s and '70s that came afterwards. Oh, and if this weren't enough, it just also happens to be the most censored book in the history of the United States, as well as a personal favorite of both Mark David Chapman (who killed John Lennon) and John Hinckley Jr (who shot Ronald Reagan); these facts alone almost guarantee it a spot on any list of classics.

The argument against:
The main argument against this being a classic seems to be that it's become a victim of its own success; indeed, Catcher in the Rye has been so influential over the decades, its critics say, an entire genre of "Salingeresque" work now exists (which like I said is more formally known as "confessional young adult"), many books of which are actually much better than the original that started them all. After all, let's admit it, Catcher in the Rye has its problems, ones typical of any young and inexperienced writer (which Salinger was when first penning this); just as one good example, there are only so many times you can use the word 'g-ddam' in one story before it becomes a self-parodying joke. Like many of the books being reviewed in this essay series, I don't think there's a single human out there who would deny this novel's historical importance; but that's not what we're trying to determine here with the CCLaP 100, but rather whether it's a book you personally should read before you die.

My verdict:
So imagine my shock when I found myself finishing this book and saying to myself, "My God -- JD Salinger is basically Judy Blume with more cursing." (Or to be completely fair, I guess that should be worded -- "My God, Judy Blume is basically JD Salinger with Jews and menstruation.") I guess I had been expecting a lot more, given what a supernaturally high regard this book has among such a large swath of the general population; I was expecting it to not only be a good Young Adult novel (which it admittedly is) but also something that was going to reveal some sort of transcendent truth about the world to me as a fully-grown adult.

Er...it doesn't. This is just a good Young Adult novel, and you owe it to yourself to know that going into it; that unless you're a teen yourself when you read it, there really isn't going to be anything too terribly original or groundbreaking found in this manuscript. In fact, you could argue that Salinger was quite smart to basically wall himself off from the press and general public after this book, and never publish again (he's still alive, by the way, for those who don't know, reputedly living a happy and quiet life somewhere on the Atlantic Seaboard); because ultimately this is not a great book but simply a good one, eventually made legendary because of the time period it was published, and the subsequent reclusive career that Salinger has had. Its overwhelming historical significance I think earns it a place on the classics list, plus the fact that it's not actually a bad book at all; it's just that this is a kind of book that adults have already read many times before, especially if you were a fan of such authors as Betsy Byars when you were a teen yourself.

Is it a classic? I suppose
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Sarah i am a college student and, having just re-read catcher since finals are over, i felt similarly about the book. i loved the book all the more for it, and although i felt so much compassion for holden and i understood his feeling of being misunderstood, the high-school pitch of there being some more deep and profound truth just means that i didn't completely understand the book in the first place...

Niel I enjoyed your review. However, I have a small arguement with the following phrase.

I was expecting it to not only be a good Young Adult novel (which it admittedly is) but also something that was going to reveal some sort of transcendent truth about the world to me as a fully-grown adult.

I took from it that as adults, we inhabit a world of grown up Holden Caufields. Maybe more polished, a bit more adjusted. But beneath the surface, Holden lurks within.

Alfred Bates "it is demonstrably the very first book in history to establish the "confessional young adult" genre"

What about Great Expectations or Of Human Bondage? Granted, they do have a much wider range age-wise pertaining to the characters, yet they definitely have some sort of a confessional quality contained within, and I feel that they pursue their explanations with much more depth and insight than Salinger did. He should have stuck with the short stories, he was really good at those. Leave the novels to people who are good at character development, in my opinion.

Obviously, this is just my opinion, think whatever you want.

Jake That was an excellent execution of a review. Could we open conversation for you to review my novel? Even if you hated it, I get the feeling you'd hate it with some class.

Rhonda You missed the point by not talking about Allie. This is not about adolescent angst, it's about loss and depression. Holden is a profoundly depressed young man who had not grieved for his brother. When Allie died, Holden was psychiatrically hospitalized. Then he went thru this long period of getting kicked out of schools due to his lack of motivation, culminating in this second breakdown chronicled in the book.

message 6: by Sophie (new)

Sophie "My God -- JD Salinger is basically Judy Blume with more cursing." (Or to be completely fair, I guess that should be worded -- "My God, Judy Blume is basically JD Salinger with Jews and menstruation." Hahah this made me laugh,mind if I use it? (still quietly chuckling)

message 7: by Adam (new) - rated it 1 star

Adam Kolich Catcher in the rye, you must have to be American to appreciate it. It's about some winey kid from a bourgeois family. Pretty dull and crap!

Cosmic Arcata The Catcher in the Rye is about WW2. It is a story within a story. Holden (which is the name of a car) is just a vehicle to "understand" the WW2. See my review. When you understand that Salinger couldn't say what he knew about this war so he wrote it as a children's book... Just like Felix Salten in Bambi (not the Disney version, which is probably why Salinger didn't get his published.

Salinger tells you this is nit a David Copperfield story. So don't read it like it is about Holden. Hint: look at the first page of David Copperfield to understand "Caiulfields" name.

I hope you will reread it again. This time when you get to the Merry go round play the music Salinger said was playing, and see if that makes sense or if he is using this book to tell you about money, power and war.

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