No teenager has known angst quite like Holden Caulfield knew it. And no writer has inspired such mythic curiosity as Holden’s creator, J.D. Salinger, who — after publishing his classic first novel, The Catcher in the Rye, on July 16, 1951 — went into hiding and never came out.
The story seems so simple, yet so perfectly conveys the complexities of growing up smart in tangled modern times. From a psychiatric center, Caulfield, funny, sensitive 16-year-old child of affluent New Yorkers, tells of flunking out of prep school and, as Christmas nears, running away to New York before his parents learn the bad news. He turns such acts as giving $10 to nuns in Grand Central and dancing with some 30-year old women into moments of poignant pain and besieged innocence. He sarcastically and transparently denies being lonely, yet vulnerability blazes through his cynicism, and readers around the world instantly took him to their hearts.
Catcher almost immediately became a dog-eared favorite, climbing the heights of the best-seller list. But its now-mild swearing and rebelliousness were attacked, and it was banned from many school curricula. Decades later, when gunmen John Hinckley, Robert John Bardo, and Mark David Chapman were discovered to own copies, the book was once again assailed as a bad influence. Yet it remains a staple of English class syllabi, has been translated into 14 languages, and is so revered that purists were outraged when a white cover replaced the burgundy classic in 1991.
The intrusive fame that accrued from his elegant paean to pained youth keeps Salinger, 75, shrouded in reclusiveness in Cornish, N.H. Although he wrote three more books, including Franny and Zooey (1961), he hasn’t published a word since a 1965 New Yorker short story; he is rumored to have written a few works under strict instructions that they be published posthumously. Salinger hasn’t permitted a movie of Catcher and hasn’t granted an interview since 1953. He briefly surfaced in newspapers in 1987 when he decided to sue Random House and unauthorized biographer Ian Hamilton: In a landmark case, Hamilton was barred from using Salinger’s unpublished letters. He has been such a recluse, in fact, that novelist John Calvin Batchelor claimed in 1976 that Thomas Pynchon and Salinger were one and the same. Pynchon denied it. Salinger didn’t comment.
A classic transcends time and often profoundly shapes the work of future artists. Catcher in the Rye set the stage for tragic teen heroes from Jim Stark in the film Rebel Without a Cause to Ponyboy in S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders, but Holden Caulfield, the granddaddy of them all, stays as young, tormented, and profound as he did 43 years ago.
July 16, 1951
James Jones’ From Here to Eternity was a No. 1 best-seller for almost that long. Nat ”King” Cole’s ”Too Young” ruled the music charts, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train took audiences on a hair-raising ride.