The Catcher in the Rye Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel written by J.D. Salinger in 1951. It is told from the first person perspective of a young boy named Holden Caulfield, who is in a psychiatric facility after the events of the novel. Holden dislikes the world around him and his story reflects that. It explores themes such as growing up, the phoniness that comes with growing up, and alienation from peers as a means of protecting oneself.

Biography

Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City in 1919 to a wealthy cheese importer. He spent his youth in an upscale, Manhattan neighborhood where he attended numerous private schools. He finally graduated from Valley Forge Military Academy in 1936, and thereafter, attended numerous colleges without receiving a degree. It was at Columbia University that his interest in writing developed after taking a creative writing course. Salinger published his first short story in 1940 and continued to write while fought in World War II. Upon returning to the states, he continued to write numerous stories that were published in respected literary magazines. Salinger published his first and only full-length novel in 1951, the title of which is The Catcher in the Rye . He received national acclaim for this literary achievement.

Historical Context

The Catcher in the Rye was published just after America's industrial boom. World War II had ended with the bombing of Hiroshima and both the Korean War and the Cold War were just beginning. These were the Eisenhower years, otherwise known as the Age of Affluence. Mass-production of goods and an increase in prosperity led to an explosion of consumerism into homes across the country. Large American cars, houses in the suburbs, and televisions to fill those homes were being purchased in abundance. With the opening of Disneyland, Americans were apparently reveling in the simple pleasures offered by the acquisition of similar goods and supra-real entertainment.

However, this was also known as the Age of Anxiety, the dominant trends of which were paranoia and anti-communism. There was also an obsession with and fear of scientific advancement, particularly atomic energy and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. These factors, combined, resulted in a marketed expectation of conformity; namely the compliance with the new national standards of political affiliation, economic status, and the morality that tended to be connected to both. To be more specific, if you were American, then you had to be: loyal and supportive of the new campaigns against communism; middle-class with a car in the garage and a television in the living room; have good, Christian values.

The 1950s also saw the development of a youth culture. During the Great Depression and the two World Wars, youth were expected to contribute financially to the household. This was no longer an expectation under the new prosperity; therefore, teens had plenty of leisure time and sources of entertainment available to them. Pop culture, as it is now known, was driven by this new social group and provided them with new music (e.g. Rock&Roll), trendy fashion, television shows (i.e. cartoons, American Bandstand, etc.). Despite the new pop-cultural offerings specifically marketed to teens, they became disaffected by the contradictions inherent to their social values. Conscious of the looming nuclear threat and increasing discrepancies between the what the media portrayed as American culture and what they witnessed in real life, American youth reacted in surprising ways. Boredom, angst, depression, and alienation ensued, manifesting in an increase in juvenile delinquency among middle-class youth as well as increase in violent crimes committed by middle-class youth.

Another important development of this era is the rise of the Beat Generation, a small group of writers who protested the fallaciousness of the new American culture through poetry. Their works openly discussed the alienation and disillusionment felt by youth. They also openly discussed an alternative lifestyle that was in extreme opposition to that of the newly prosperous America. This alternative lifestyle celebrated sexual experimentation, casual drug use, jazz, and a renunciation of materialism and consumerism. The Beats, though a small group, had a significant influence on the literary world. J.D. Salinger is among the many writers influenced by the Beats.

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