By Emily Becker, Max Geissbuhler, and Christopher Johnson
The story of Holden Caulfield’s coming-of-age journey in America…
Who: J.D. Salinger
What: The Catcher in the Rye
When: 1951 – 1989
Where: United States of America
Why: The overuse of inappropriate language, sex, and other illegal underage activities
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, chronicles the adolescence of troubled teen and protagonist Holden Caulfield. Although originally intended a publication for adults, The Catcher in the Rye has transformed into a symbol of teenage rebellion. Throughout the story, Holden Caulfield grapples with the difficulties of establishing his individuality, losing his innocence, and confronting the hypocrisy of his elders. One of the most controversial sections of the novel entails Holden going to his sister’s elementary school, where he finds the phrase “fuck you” written on a wall. He attempts to scrub it off of the wall and thinks about how he wants to wipe the phrase off of walls around the world, only to realize that he cannot possibly do this. Due to the obscene language, as well as the dark conclusions that Holden reaches about the adult world (seeing the world as corrupted by adults and curse words), many people from all over the United States argued for the censorship of The Catcher in the Rye.
The crude depiction of Holden’s coming-of-age journey has prompted Salinger’s novel to be considered as either a coveted exploration of the American juvenile’s struggle or a perverse interpretation of American youth culture. Although the work is now widely accepted in American educational institutions, The Catcher in the Rye faced significant controversy after its publication in 1951 and up until the late 1980’s. An analysis of the intense stigma surrounding The Catcher in the Rye, what prompted its censorship in schools across the United States, and why the novel is able to be accepted today are key elements in understanding how Salinger’s novel challenged and shaped the genre of young adult literature.
An important aspect of the novel is its depiction of the history and culture in the U.S. during 1951. In her book In Cold Fear, Pamela Hunt Steinle analyzes the U.S.’s cultural shifts during the mid-twentieth century. One of her main explanations for the censorship of The Catcher in the Rye is the shift in innocence of the American people after nuclear weapons were used to end World War I (23).This innocence is epitomized by the differences in post-war American culture following World War I and World War II. After World War I came the iconic Jazz Age, a time when America’s economy grew more drastically and rapidly than it ever had before. As Steinle shows, this elegant and grandiose period is starkly contrasted by the post-World War II era, when the spread of communism and the escalation of the production of nuclear weapons led many people to live in fear of impending nuclear doom. As John Clellon Holmes explained in his 1958 essay, “The Philosophy of the Beat Generation”:
It is the first generation in American history that has grown up with peacetime military training as a fully accepted fact of life…It is the first generation for whom genocide, brain-washing, cybernetics, motivational research—and the resultant limitation of the concept of human volition which is inherent in them—have been as familiar as its own face.
When The Catcher in the Rye was written in 1951, J.D. Salinger recognized the immense shift in American cultural values, from children growing up in an “innocent” environment to one where nuclear detonation drills became a common practice in American schools. As Steinle argues, “The Catcher in the Rye is written in the tradition of the American Adam yet conceived in a context of disillusionment and alienation from that very tradition” (43).
These challenges to American cultural values made the novel a source of heated discussion and eventual censorship. Most cases of the books censorship occurred in the primary sources of childhood education, Americas secondary school system.
The censoring of the novel ultimately came down to individual schools and their school boards. Cases would be presented to these entities, which usually resulted in long and drawn out cases being made for and against the book before a final decision was drawn upon. (In Cold Fear 12)
Many people and organizations disproved of Salinger’s novel, and organizations such as churches and their members voiced their concern for Holden’s frequent cursing and poor behavior to local school boards, who would then decide whether The Catcher in the Rye could be used as part of the classroom curriculum. With the emergence of groups such as Citizens for Decent Literature (CDL) and the National Organization for Decent Literature (NODL), anyone concerned with the usage of books such as The Catcher in the Rye had the ability to make their opinion known to their local school board. In order to request for a book to be censored, the requester would only need to answer several questions in a form provided by either of the organizations (Steinle 14). Then, NODL task forces consisting of active Catholic women in their communities would reach out to bookstores and schools to remove the proposed merchandise. In an interview, Professor Stephen Whitfield explains that vulgar language, “expresses a kid’s hostility to ‘phoniness.’”
In the map above, red pins indicate censorship in 1956, while orange represents censorship in 1955, and yellow in 1954.
Although The Catcher in the Rye was widely censored around the world, several high-profile cases occurred within the United States. In 1981, a debate took place in Buncombe County, North Carolina over the use of The Catcher in the Rye in the district’s public high school classrooms. A request for the removal of the book was made on the grounds that, as stated by Pastor Randy Stone of Calvary Free Will Baptist Church, it uses ‘God’s name in vain’” (Steinle 77). Interestingly, Stone’s argument was countered by Fred Ohler, a local pastor at the Warren Wilson United Presbyterian Church. Ohler questioned why Steinbeck’s novel was being censored, when “‘the larger issues of grinding poverty and social misjustice, of adult hypocrisy, of war camp atrocities [are] never faced’” (78). Ohler’s challenge of Stone’s proposal raises an interesting argument regarding the censorship of The Catcher in the Rye, as well as the act of censorship as a whole: determining censorship is simply a matter of perspective. Instead of calling for the immediate removal of a single novel from a high school curriculum, Ohler challenged Stone to focus on social issues that Ohler deemed to be of greater importance.
Pastor Randy Stone’s and Pastor Fred Ohler’s disagreement serves as a microcosm for social values in America in the twentieth century. Stone represents the value of protecting American youth, while Ohler seeks to develop young adults’ maturity through social awareness and confronting difficult circumstances.
Censoring The Catcher in the Rye created an array of contrasting viewpoints. Many believed that the novel was justly censored due to its crude language and loose moral codes presented throughout Holden’s adventures. Teachers, scholars, and those who appreciated the literary merit of the novel found its censoring to be unjust and unnecessary. Censoring The Catcher in the Rye challenged many adolescents’ opportunity to digest and discover Salinger’s moral statements and lessons.
Shortly after Salinger published the book, and cases of its censorship began to appear, the basis of its censorship was called into question. In a 1957 edition of The Canberra Times, journalist Eugene Kamenka Turner inquires “what conceivable ‘credentials’ could make a man competent to read that which others may not read” (2). Turner’s reasoning was in response to the banning of Salinger’s novel in Australia by the Commonwealth Customs department. While never explicitly banned in America, the rejection of the text created a rebellious atmosphere among those who supported its publication and distribution. America was founded on the ideals of freedom and liberty, and many felt as though attempts to keep people from reading the novel, inside and outside of the country, imposed on these principles. Turner captures this very feeling when he asserts that “Those who value…liberty find it impossible, of course, to plead a case within the framework of censorship regulations and censorship machinery without a feeling of humiliation and disgust” (2).
In the late 1970’s and 1980’s, many American teachers responded to the controversy surrounding The Catcher in the Rye by openly defending the social lessons and benefits students and teenagers could receive from studying the text. For instance, Helen Frangedis, a speaker at the 1989 National Council of Teachers of English Conference, emphasized that “‘Catcher is not a novel that one assigns students to read and analyze on their own… it demands structure, guidance, and strong teaching’” (1). Misconceptions about the novel are alleviated when a knowledgeable instructor conducts the reading process.
Furthering the stigma and mystique surrounding The Catcher in the Rye was the controversial murder case of music icon and former Beatles member, John Lennon. Late at night on December 8, 1980, breaking news reported that the star had been tragically gunned down outside of his New York apartment after returning from a session at the recording studio. After receiving five bullets to the center of his back from the unknown gunman, Lennon was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital where he was pronounced dead upon arrival. Police soon identified Mark David Chapman as the shooter.
Nearly over night, Mark David Chapman became a household name. As investigations continued, it was revealed that the crazed killer carried two items with him at the time of the incident: a Charter Arms .38 pistol and a copy of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, in which he had inscribed, “This is my statement.” Chapman claims to have purchased the novel that day and allegedly spent a significant portion of the day reading from the text as he awaited his gruesome encounter with Lennon (Stashower).
Around a year later, the New York Times published an article that addressed a handwritten letter the press had received from Mark David Chapman himself. In it, Chapman proclaims,
My wish is for all of you to someday read “The Catcher in the Rye.” All of my efforts will now be devoted toward this goal, for this extraordinary book holds many answers. My true hope is that in wanting to find these answers you will read “The Catcher in the Rye.” Thank you (Montgomery).
This particular event is significant in that its media coverage brought further negative attention to The Catcher in the Rye. Although Chapman admits to having had disturbing obsessions leading up to the murder and considered pleading guilty under the insanity defense, the role that the novel played in the murder is not easily discounted. December 8, 1980 J.D. Salinger had no longer written just the story of Holden Caulfield—rather he had written the stories of Mark David Chapman and John Lennon alike.
Today, parents and institutions are more accepting of the novel. Whitfield reinforces this notion by observing that
Language is now much looser and freer, for better or for worse. And much of the sense of estrangement that is recorded in “The Catcher in the Rye” has become absorbed, as though it has become natural to adolescence and to a society that is not assumed any more to be worth vindicating at all costs.
Whitfield argues further that the novel is instructive for students, even in its portrayal of controversial subjects. These elements of the book paint the world in a negative light and “presents an adult world that the young might be very reluctant to inherit.”
The Catcher in the Rye paved the way for contemporary young adult literature. Salinger’s depiction of the coming-of-age journey is highly characteristic of the shifts in 1950s American culture. Holden Caulfield’s character was not only reflective, but likewise indicative of the newfound model of American adolescence and teenage rebellion.
Breen, Steve. J.D. Salinger in Purgatory. Digital image. J.D. Salinger in Purgatory (Political Cartoon). The San Diego Union-Tribune, 29 Jan. 2010. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.
Edwards, June. “Censorship in the Schools: What’s Moral about The Catcher in the Rye?” The English Journal 72.4 (1983): 39. Web.
Frangedis, Helen. “Dealing with the Controversial Elements in The Catcher in the Rye” The English Journal 77.7 (1988): 72. Web.
Montgomery, Paul L. “Lennon Murder Suspect Preparing Insanity.” Www.nytimes.com. The New York Times, 9 Feb. 1981. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
Salinger, J. D., E. Michael Mitchell, and Lotte Jacobi. The Catcher in the Rye. First edition. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1951. Print.
Stashower, Daniel. “On First Looking into Chapman’s Holden: Speculations on a Murder.” Www.theamericanscholar.org. The American Scholar, 30 Jan. 2010. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
Steinle, Pamela Hunt. In Cold Fear: The Catcher in the Rye Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2000. Print.
Taylor, David. “Word Cloud of The Catcher in the Rye.” ~ Prooffreader.com. Prooffreader, 09 Sept. 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.
“The Censorship of The Catcher in the Rye. E-mail interview. 16 Oct. 2016.
Turner, Eugene Kamenka. “Letters To The Editor.” The Canberra Times [Canberra] 20 Sept. 1957: 2. Print.
Keywords: J.D. Salinger, Censorship, Banned Books, Adolescence, Sexuality, USA, America, Coming of Age, Twentieth Century Literature, Holden Caulfield