Sixty years and 65m copies on: Holden Caulfield and the great American novel

 

‘The Catcher in the Rye’, JD Salinger’s only novel, with its irritating, intoxicating lead character, still connects with readers – and writers – after more than half a century

If you really want to know about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap

JD Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye

ROUTINELY HAILED as the great American novel, JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Ryeoffers a story that is on the face of it modest in ambition and scale. First published on July 16th, 1951, it follows the disaffected Holden Caulfield on his perambulations around New York city late in December 1949, in the wake of his expulsion from an upmarket prep school. Intended by Salinger for an adult readership, Holden’s intensely first-person tale of his experiences amid the snobs and phoneys of his social set has fired the imagination of generations of adolescents ever since.

“God, I loved that book,” says Sarah Webb, herself an author of young adult novels, and who first read The Catcher in the Ryeat the age of 15. “I read it in one all-night sitting, gobbling up every page. The next night I turned back to chapter one and started all over again. I remember slowing down towards the end, distraught to be coming to the end. I wanted the reading experience to last forever.”

Holden Morrisey Caulfield first appeared in the short story I’m Crazy,which was published in Collier’smagazine in 1945. (A previous version had been accepted in 1941 by the New Yorkerbut not published, as it was considered too bleak in tone.) A reworked version of I’m Crazywould eventually provide the material for the first chapter of The Catcher in the Rye, establishing Caulfield’s expulsion from Pencey Prep, as well as the unfussy, stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative that seems to bypass the critical faculties to speak directly to the teenage heart. The novel sells about 250,000 copies a year; total sales now top an estimated 65 million.

Ed O’Loughlin, the author of Toploader, was also in his mid teens when he first read the book. “At the time I liked it a lot,” he says of Caulfield’s voice and authenticity, “but I also kind of took it for granted. It didn’t seem to me remarkable that a writer could articulate so well what it was like to be that age.”

Another writer who was nonplussed by Salinger’s skill in creating an inimitable voice is Deborah Lawrenson, author of The Lantern. “I first read The Catcher in the Ryewhen I was about 13, which was far too young. I really didn’t get it, possibly because I was a keen student – a bit of a swot, really – who couldn’t envisage the kind of problems faced by Holden Caulfield. I thought everything boiled down to his bad attitude. On rereading it later on in life, of course, I realised that the novel was altogether more complex and exciting as a piece of literature.”

Eoin McNamee, whose most recent book is Orchid Blue,is more circumspect about Holden Caulfield’s authenticity. “I suppose I bring the same reservations to the character of Holden Caulfield as I do to the book itself,” he says. “There is something glittering and brittle in the deep structures of the book that makes it easy to admire but hard to like. Reading it at 14, I never got the feeling that Holden was an inhabitant of the same teenage country as I was. More like an undersized adult adrift in the structures of adolescence.”

“For me,” says O’Loughlin, “Holden is both irritating and intoxicating. That’s what adolescence and adolescents are like. And Holden’s character hasn’t aged for me. Kids are still that stupid, intelligent, confused, direct, benevolent, cynical, optimistic and depressive.”

Belinda McKeon’s first experience of reading The Catcher in the Ryecame just last week, at the rather less impressionable age of 32. “He’s mesmeric,” she says of Holden Caulfield. “Integrity and innocence and wisdom and vulnerability all vying with each other in this intense, unsettling jag. His language, the way it strives so energetically towards jadedness, thereby revealing the very young, very raw life at the heart of it, is beautiful to me.”

The cult status of The Catcher in the Ryebenefited hugely from Salinger’s decision to withdraw from public life once the novel was published. Although rumour had it that he was writing in hermit-like bliss, Salinger, who died last year at the age of 91, never published another novel.

Throughout his life, he remained obsessively true to the spirit of Holden Caulfield, refusing to countenance, for example, a film adaptation of the novel. Among the directors who failed to persuade Salinger to allow them to put Caulfield on the silver screen were Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan and Steven Spielberg; similarly, the actors Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio were all refused adaptation rights.

Adding to the novel’s aura was the fact that Salinger made no secret of his ambitions when he was writing it, announcing to anyone who would listen that he was engaged in writing the fabled great American novel.

“If a ‘great American novel’ tells us truths about a certain time in life in a certain place,” says Lawrenson, “and goes on to stand the test of time in that it voices issues that are still being debated 60 years later, then I think you’d have to hand it to Salinger: he succeeded.”

“Define great,” says Webb. “If it means a book you never forget, a book you come back to time and time again, a book you feel genuinely emotionally connected to, then yes. The first few lines alone are dynamite.”

McKeon, whose debut novel, Solace, was published in the US in May, is in no doubt about the novel’s claim on greatness. “I don’t think there can be any serious question that it’s one of the great novels to have come out of America,” she says. “There’s nothing quite like it, and if something seems to be like Catcher, that’s surely because Catcher existed in the first place.”

McNamee is more interested in Salinger’s execution than in his intent. “The idea of ‘the great novel’ is a fraud. A good novel is as good as any other good novel and a bad one is just bad. On that basis, The Catcher in the Ryeis a good novel. A book with an unsettling karma, though, a place offering solace to all sorts of strangeness.”

“I don’t know what kind of novel Salinger set out to write,” says O’Loughlin, “but I don’t think that The Catcher in the Ryeis the great American novel, if such a thing exists. For me it’s the great adolescent novel, which is better yet, because not all of us are American, but most of us have had to find some way to live through our teens.”

For me it’s the great adolescent novel: not all of us are American, but most of us have had to find some way to live through our teens