Friday, July 16, 2010

Pop History Moment: "The Catcher In The Rye" Was Published

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On this day in 1951 The Catcher in the Rye, written by J. D. Salinger, was published by Little, Brown and Company of New York; not only did the novel ensure its author an enduring fame, it's also paid for his even more famous seclusion, which deepened over the subsequent five decades*. Owing to the book's pseudo-controversial content, with each new banning it became increasingly popular, which is an all-too-common if delightful side-effect of censorship, and despite its brevity, it's a book best known for its superlatives: one of the most popular and one of the most banned, besides being one of the most referenced in all of 20th Century literature as well.

The novel's anti-hero, Holden Caulfield, is the sort of guy you might know - an judgemental jerk with an entitlement complex a mile wide, whose existence proves the maxim that only boring people are bored; it almost goes without saying that Holden Caulfield is bored a lot, and given his oft-noted disdain for phonies, Caulfield is also the biggest phony there is**. Plus, it's an eerily accurate portrait of the mind of a teenage boy; since I really don't like teenagers (and the boy versions of that ilk are by far the worst) the visceral reaction I had to the book could be based on that alone.

Subsequent generations of douchebags (most notably Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley, Jr.) have used the casual nihilism espoused by the book's lead character and narrator to justify their own bullshittery; the book's satiric edge has thus become somewhat blunted over the years by people like them having been so stupid as to take it and its message as some kind of manifesto in the first place. Yet even given the thoroughly loathsome character of Caulfield and the corrosive effect he seems to have on whackjobs I did enjoy the book, based almost solely on Salinger's refreshing honesty; unlike the reaction I had upon my first reading of Cervantes' Don Quixote, I never once threw The Catcher in the Rye against a wall while reading it, although I did roll my eyes so much those sitting next to me probably thought I was having a seizure!

*A seclusion which hasn't exactly lessened since his January 2010 death either...
**Which may, in fact, have been Salinger's point - namely that we most hate people who embody those traits we dislike in ourselves - commonplace pop psychology today, but quite an Earth-shattering revelation for the Fifties.
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2 comments:

TankMontreal said...

"...an Earth-shattering revelation for the Fifties."
It's stunning that my peers and I were born in the '50s (albeit the very late '50s), when societal ignorance was commonplace. How the hell did we get to where we are now?

michael sean morris said...

As we both well know, the right kind of lube will get you into (and therefore out of) even the tightest places. In this case, that lube was 1965-1980.

Despite the Fifties' reputation as a strait-laced decade, there were plenty of subversive elements afoot - Lenny Bruce, the Beats, even Elvis - who not only challenged the orthodoxy but soon enough brought that sucker down.

As for any advances society seems to be making, chalk it up to capitalism - a thing is bad only up until some rich guy figures out how to use it to make himself even richer. Once anything is some zillionaire's new revenue stream every bishop and senator in the country can be opposed to it, but they'll never be able to get rid of it.