The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger

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Jerome David Salinger wanted the cover of The Catcher in the Rye to be white as he desired the book to be chosen by the readers just for its contents and not for its form. So it was for the Italian cover edited by Einaudi and we also referred to this idea when shot the picture. We very much love this book and decided to re-read it recently in order to share our views about it, being fully aware that it would turn to be a very challenging review considering that much has been said about it.

Salinger was born in New York in 1919 and died in 2010 at an age of 91. After having written this book – controversial at first, becoming later a classic – he wrote few works. He shunned the spotlight and retreated into self-imposed isolation for 50 years up until his death getting interested more and more in easter philosophy and spiritual theories.

He had three wives and two sons: Matt and Margaret. Margaret, with her mother Claire, after Salinger death published the autobiographical Dream Catcher: A Memoir giving a very negative image of her father. Matt got famous after playing Capitan America in the 1990 homonymous film. Holden Caulfield and Capitan America, imagine that: what an oxymoron!

A sui generis coming of age novel

Salinger’s Holden Caulfield became an iconic image of the anti-hero. His famous story is that of a 17 year old boy who has been expelled from Pencey – an exclusive boarding school in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. The reason for his unrest is that he lives the passage to adulthood as a tragic transition. So, on the one hand, this is a coming of age novel by the book, but on the other the story seems to transcend this classification. In fact, considering its deep analytical and introspective density it seems to recall the characteristics of a psychological novel.

As a matter of fact the incapacity of Holden to become adult is just a staring point. In fact its story is able to inspire broader reflections on the meaning of maturity in the modern age and society. Indeed he is unable to function in the real world as he seems to misread the language through which grown up people are used to labelling things and playing the social script. In fact the catcher in the rye – a variant from a verse of the poem Comin Thro’ the Rye by Scottish writer Robert Burns (1759–1796) , indicates what Holden aims to do once adult: be a rescuer of children playing in a field of rye, catching them before they fall off a cliff.

Being the Catcher

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be  I know it’s crazy.”

This image figuratively means being the one who saves the children from becoming adult and it also shows the desire of Holden to be a mediator between two worlds: the worlds of childhood and adulthood, those of fantasy and reality, the worlds made of what we would like to be and that of what we actually are. This is what maturity comes to represent to his mind.

Six degrees of separation

The role of mediator that Holden would like to assume is underlined by a very interesting film: Six degrees of separation by Fred Schepisi. It is based on the theatrical comedy by John Guare. The title refers to the homonymous theory, popular in semiotics and sociology, according to which every person can be connected with another through a chain of relations with no more than 5 intermediaries. In the film the main character played by a very young Will Smith gives an interestingly original interpretation of The Catcher in the Rye starting from a profound consideration on the relations that can be established between people, things and events.

In particular he wonders about the reason why a touching coming of age novel such as The Catcher in the Rye was referred to as statement by Mark David Chapman when he killed John Lennon or was possessed by John Hinckley, the man who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan, or even quoted by other people involved in similar radical situations. The monologue below of this very interesting film shows the character reflecting over this and pointing out the reasons why the story of young Holden far from being just a coming of age novel it is able to inspire much deeper thoughts and to shed light on very complex aspects of the human existence.

The value of imagination

According to this film, the book is primarily about the value of imagination as a bridge between the two separate world of fantasy and reality. In fact the young Holden wishes to be able to mediate between these two dimensions, this is what maturity seems to be for him. However in the real world maturity has a completely different meaning, which does not always include imagination, tending on the contrary to cut it out from ordinary life.Yet imagination in this reading is a powerful tool, without which the process of self-analysis is not bearable and the relationship with other people hardly possible.

However, the childish dream of life as a never-ending game needs to be revised by the existential seriousness of the civil maturity. Holden comes across this truth and understands both the importance for him to reframe his concept of imagination within an adult scheme and the need for everyone to acknowledge the fundamental role imagination has in accompanying us throughout our lives.

Reading The Catcher in the Rye

The greatness of this book comes from the fact that Holden‘s catharsis is the catharsis of every one. It is about the importance of imagination in everyone’s life but also about the risks and the dangers it may lead to. This work at any reading is able to assume new nuances and even if it was written more than half century ago it does seem as it was written yesterday.

Its constant contemporaneity is related to the originality with which it treats the theme of the current state of the imaginative dimension of individual experience and how it connects it with constructive personal analysis and relational dynamics, highlighting how finding a balance between our inner world of emotions and desires and the outer world of facts and actions is key to live and function.