Why J.D. Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye' still provokes book bans

In 1951, the novel was anti-everyone. But the profanity and sex are pretty tame for these times. So why has it provoked adult outrage for so many decades?
J.D. Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye'

J.D. Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye'

When I read earlier this year that J.D. Salinger had died, I remembered Holden Caulfield, the alientated teenage narrator of his 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, riding in a cab through Manhattan — a key literary image of my own adolescence (although of course the book's appeal lay not in its images but in its attitude). I also thought of book banning — that peculiarly American pastime in which Catcher has played such a prominent part since the mid-20th century — which figured significantly in my adolescence, too.

Recalling Salinger in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes about a man in his 40s who loved Catcher in the Rye but feared that his own son would find the milieu too distant to connect. No problem: “the boy grasped it to his heart as his father had, as the Rough Guide to his experience.”

It seems remarkable that a novel presumably based partly on Salinger's own prep school experience before World War II has spoken so strongly to kids growing up generations later, and just as strongly — albeit in different ways — to people who worried about those kids' moral development. Despite the profanity and sex, it's also hard to see why a relatively tame book of that vintage kept provoking adult outrage long after sex and drugs and rock-and-roll became integrated into the adolescent lifestyle. But the history speaks for itself:

“Selected in 1963 by the U.S. Information Service as ‘one of the 12 post-World War II American novels most likely to last,’” Pamela Hunt Steinle writes in In Cold Fear, “by 1981 Catcher had the dubious distinction of being at once the most frequently censored book across the country and the second most frequently taught novel in the public schools.”

“What makes [Catcher in the Rye] especially interesting,” the BBC observed in 2003, “is that it has been banned in many countries at one time or another and still remains on the banned list in areas of the USA. As well as containing 'vulgar and obscene language', drunkenness, prostitution, delinquency and references to sex it has also been accused of being: 'anti-white' (1963 - Columbus, Ohio), being part of a 'communist plot to gain a foothold in schools' (1978 - Issaquah, Washington). . . . Catcher in the Rye gained even more notoriety in 1981 when Mark Chapman approached John Lennon on the steps of the Dakota Hotel, New York and shot him five times killing him. Chapman then removed his copy of Catcher in the Rye from his pocket, signed by Lennon earlier that morning, and tried to read it.”

“Since its publication,” the American Library Association (ALA) says on its website, “[Catcher in the Rye] has been a favorite target of censors.” The site then lists a long series of bannings and attempted bannings from 1960 to 2001. “In 1960,” it says, “a teacher in Tulsa, Okla. was fired for assigning the book to an eleventh grade English class.The teacher appealed and was reinstated by the school board, but the book was removed from use in the school. In 1963, a delegation of parents of high school students in Columbus, Ohio, asked the school board to ban the novel for being 'anti-white' and 'obscene.' ”

In the eye of the right beholder, it turned out to be anti-almost everyone. The ALA reports that it was “[c]hallenged in the Waterloo, Iowa schools (1992) and Duval County, Fla. public school libraries (1992) because of profanity, lurid passages about sex, and statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled.” The book was also “[c]hallenged as required reading in the Corona Norco, Calif. Unified School District (1993) because it is 'centered around negative activity' ” and “[r]emoved by a Dorchester District 2 school board member in Summerville, SC (2001) because it 'is a filthy, filthy book.' ” And, oh yes, as we already know, it was “[r]emoved from the Issaquah, Wash. Optional High School reading list” too.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Mar 19, 8:10 a.m. Inappropriate

In my mind, the top reason this and other frequently banned books keep being brought up is simply that people have heard their titles and associate them with being "bad." I would also lay money that 9/10 of the nazi cows (ref. Field of Dreams) who support book banning have never actually read the subject books.

debbalee

Posted Sat, Mar 20, 11:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for your thoughtful article, Mr. Chasan. It provokes me to think about the many times I have come across folks who object to something mostly (it seemed to me) because it didn't agree with their world view, rather than anything objective or an interest to have a constructive dialogue. Too often even we with more liberal views can get corralled with our own myopia. Some of the best courses I had in college were in anthropology, which taught me to view reality from the other's perspective, rather than my own. And how can we learn that more than to read, research, and stretch ourselves outside our own little world?

Posted Thu, Oct 16, 1:01 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with debbalee below me that The Catcher in the Rye has received a common stigma of being a "bad book" because it has been labeled as such. If a parent were to look up The Catcher in the Rye on google, I'm sure at least 1/3 of the links that would come up with be regarding how it is a bad book that has been banned multiple times. Then, when a parent reads of the "profanity", "sexual content" and "violence" in the book, those three words instantly cause for concern. If they actually read the book and realized that this violence only amounts to him being punched in the face one, never actually having sex and using words such as "crap", "hell" and "phony", they would see that it is not so bad after all.

Posted Thu, Oct 16, 1:47 p.m. Inappropriate

"Catcher in the Rye" should be banned because its a "terrible book." Not "bad" as in contains vulgar language, but that the story is boring, the characters are flat and it puts readers to sleep. There are far better books about coming of age than this piece of drivel. I'd wager if people stop trying to ban it for being bad, it would be dropped from the ciriculum for being terrible.

GaryP

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