The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)
Birth of the teenager
1774 The Sorrows of Young Werther, by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, follows the passions of a sensitive young artist.
1821 English poet John Keats dies, aged 25. His early verse is criticized as “adolescent”.
1916 Irish writer James Joyce publishes A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a coming-of-age novel that depicts rebellion and anti-Catholic sentiment.
1963 US writer Sylvia Plath publishes The Bell Jar, a coming-of-age story with a twist – its teenage protagonist descends into madness.
1982 In Ham on Rye, by US author Charles Bukowski, the first-person male narrator remembers his teen years.
Numerous authors, from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and John Keats to James Joyce and F Scott Fitzgerald, explored the precarious state of adolescence long before the birth of the “teenager” in 1950s’ America. Teenagers, though, with their wild new music and their thrill-seeking, represented a challenge to conservative society and culture, and were treated with nervous dismissal: adults considered this generation to be morally lax and directionless. Teenagers kicked back with assertions of hypocrisy, considering themselves outsiders in an uncaring world; and this is the territory of Salinger’s writing.
The Catcher in the Rye is narrated by 17-year-old Holden Caulfield. He is liberal with his parents’ money, and relentless in his commentary on the human condition, sexuality, and morality. He has little regard for authority and seems careless about his self-destructive trajectory.
"I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful."
The Catcher in the Rye
But Holden Caulfield is much more than a teenage rebel. His frank admissions of deceptions, imperfections, and contradictions reveal a bemused individual who is hankering after childhood innocence, suffering grief, and growing painfully aware of the contradictions of adult life. He is a compelling antihero – an ambivalent, vulnerable figure – who can be sensitive and witty as well as immature and vulgar. Caulfield’s casual disregard for honesty and disdain for societal norms are mitigated by a genuine confessional impulse and surprising tolerance for some of the diverse characters he encounters throughout the course of the novel.
Caulfield is also an easy victim. He is bullied in his dormitory at school, and ripped off by a pimp working the elevator in the New York hotel. In his confusion about women and sex, he unconsciously seeks out kindness and familiarity. Having paid for a prostitute he asks if they can simply “talk”. He strikes up a conversation with two nuns, despite his atheism, and they insist he is “a very sweet boy”.
Inevitably, Salinger’s dirty realism caused controversy. Some critics dismissed the novel as puerile and maudlin. But Salinger gained cult status in the years following its publication, further fuelled by his reclusive lifestyle. Death and grief are prevailing themes in The Catcher in the Rye. After Holden’s brother dies, he smashes his hands in rage; his classmate is bullied and comes to a tragic end; and the very title of the book refers to stopping (catching) children running through fields before they fall off a cliff. It is likely that the loss of numerous young soldiers in World War II influenced Salinger to write this compelling first-person narrative, which remains an enduring portrait of the teenager in crisis.
J D SALINGER
Jerome David Salinger was born in 1919 to wealthy parents in New York City. Like his main protagonist Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger attended several schools before graduating. After spending a year in Europe, he studied at Columbia University, taking a writing course led by Whit Burnett, editor of Story magazine, who became his mentor early in his writing career.
Salinger was drafted into the US Army in 1942 and continued to write despite suffering from a “nervous condition”. The Catcher in the Rye thrust Salinger onto the world stage as a literary celebrity. However, he resented the attention and became reclusive and far less productive. By the time of his death in 2010, The Catcher in the Rye remained Salinger’s only full-length novel.
Other key works
1953 Nine Stories
1955 Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters
1959 Seymour: An Introduction
1961 Franny and Zooey
See also: The Sorrows of Young Werther • The Magic Mountain • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man • The Bell Jar