Censorship in Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’
On the 16th of July 1951, The Catcher in the Rye, a novel by J. D. Salinger was published by Little, Brown and Company in the United States. Initially intended for an adult audience, the book soon found its own readership and has since become enormously popular with adolescents, mainly as it explores themes such as teenage angst, alienation and rebellion. Before its publication, there did not seem to be the awareness that adolescents should be looked upon as social outsiders with a particular way of thinking and living. Sarah Graham, author of a Routledge guide to the novel, said that, “It absolutely speaks to that moment the teenager emerges as a recognisable social group. Before that, people went through their teenage years with no sense it was a particular kind of identity. It is the first novel of the modern teenage years.” The Catcher in the Rye was also the most censored title in US high schools and libraries between 1961 and 1982. The motives behind the authorities’ resistance against the novel were mostly caused by the protagonist Holden’s frequent use of vulgar language, the sexual references, blasphemy, undermining of family values and moral codes, the display of a poor role model, encouragement of rebellion, and promotion of drinking, smoking, lying, and promiscuity. (Helen Frangedis, ‘Dealing with the Controversial Elements in The Catcher in the Rye’, The English Journal, 77/7, November 1988). As it turned out, though, many of the critics had not even read the entire novel.
Pamela Hunt Steinle wrote in her book In Cold Fear: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, Censorship, Controversies and Postwar American Character (Ohio State University, 2000), that “Holden Caulfield’s self-definition is Adamic in drawing on symbolic associations with the Western wilderness (diminished to objects like his deer-stalking cap), but is then compromised by ‘postwar cultural conditions of anonymity and alienation’ . This compromise affects the novel’s language and the stance of the narrator. (…) From what appears to have usually been a knee-jerk reaction to the language Salinger’s detractors made a leap to attack the ‘message’ of the novel, and Steinle concludes that there was general agreement at this point that Holden’s narration represented a ‘purposeful questioning of American values’.” (David Seed, review Pamela Hunt Steinle’s In Cold Fear: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, Censorship, Controversies and Postwar American Character, in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 98, No. 2, Apr., 2003).
“The enduring issue about Holden himself, for both his fans and those who fear him, is best summed up in that all-purpose buzz word of the present decade, attitude. Cynical, profane, and constantly griping, sixteen-year-old Holden seems to respect nothing. Yet, as Professor Steinle notes, his values are really pretty conventional, and they are also deeply held; what makes him angry is that no one seems to live up to them. (…) the would-be censors had joined organized efforts to remove the book from high school reading lists. Why? Because Catcher presented a “negative” view of the world that they did not want their children to adopt. The issue was not the right of free expression but the power to assign. The disagreement was over “what ‘truth’ ought to be shared with adolescents.” The fear was that Holden Caulfield would persuade people as young as he to have no values at all – and that America was already well advanced in that direction. On the other hand, even when they lost, as they normally did, a surprising number of disappointed censors seem to have thought the struggle had been worthwhile after all, if only as a rare exercise in democracy. (John Arthur Maynard, in The Journal of American History, Vol. 89, No. 2, History and September 11: A Special Issue, Sep., 2002). As paradoxical as this may sound, the censorship of the Catcher in the Rye was perceived as a democratic act of preserving traditional American values. One example was, when the book was banned in some Washington state high schools in 1978 for being part of an “overall communist plot.” Another paradox was, that in 1981, for example, 30 years after its publication, it was both the most censored and the second most taught book in public schools in the United States.