“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”
J. D. SALINGER’S magnum opus, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), was a landmark novel in the 20th-century American literature and was listed as one of the best English-language novels of the century. Hailed as that “rare miracle of fiction…[where] a human being has been created out of ink, paper, and the imagination,” this mock-autobiographical story—narrated by a cynical, sardonic, cuss-tongued, yet sensitive and grieving seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield as he spends his days in a mental asylum—has captivated the imagination of many and sold more than 60 million copies, and continues to sell 250 thousand copies a year.
In the vernacular of his time (the 1940s), which Salinger delivered in an incredible capture of language, Holden tells us “about this madman stuff that happened to [him] around last Christmas just before [he] got pretty run-down” when he went to New York the night following his expulsion from Pency Prep.
The Catcher in the Rye is the mouthpiece of Holden’s rebellion—the launch of his antipathies toward the “phoniness” of adulthood. In the character of Holden, Salinger molded an archetype of “teenage angst and alienation,” almost like a younger-sibling incarnate of the disturbed unnamed narrator in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground.
(Mark David Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon, said, “Because Lennon was a phony.” His response letter composed only of one line: “Read The Catcher in the Rye.”)
World War II created Salinger: the soldier was “the ghost in the machine of all the stories.” Salinger carried chapters of The Catcher in the Rye to help him survive and wrote amid the war. The pages landed on the shores of D-Day, hid in the trenches, and witnessed the atrocities of the concentration camps, all of which were funneled into the novel.
Due to unwanted fame, Salinger went reclusive, and the public invaded him throughout his life.
Though remaining unpublished from 1965 until his death in 2010, he wrote prolifically. In the bunker where he installed himself was a safe full of manuscripts; this was said to contain the complete chronicles of the Caulfield and Glass families, other novels, short stories, and a Vedanta manual. Claims hold that Salinger “left instructions authorizing a specific timetable” that these works be published between 2015 and 2020.
Despite having only a few visible works in his oeuvre, Salinger was a literary giant as The Catcher in the Rye resonates through generations of teenagers caught between childhood and adulthood.
(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: December 13, 2015)