Ever since its publication in 1951, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye has served as a firestorm for controversy and debate. Critics have argued the moral issues raised by the book and the context in which it is presented. Some have argued that Salinger's tale of the human condition is fascinating and enlightening, yet incredibly depressing. The psychological battles of the novel's main character, Holden Caulfield, serve as the basis for critical argument. Caulfield's self-destruction over a period of days forces one to contemplate society's attitude toward the human condition. Salinger's portrayal of Holden, which includes incidents of depression, nervous breakdown, impulsive spending, sexual exploration, vulgarity, and other erratic behavior, have all attributed to the controversial nature of the novel. Yet the novel is not without its sharp advocates, who argue that it is a critical look at the problems facing American youth during the 1950's. When developing a comprehensive opinion of the novel, it is important to consider the praises and criticisms of The Catcher in the Rye.
When studying a piece of literature, it is meaningful to note the historical background of the piece and the time at which it was written. Two J.D. Salinger short stories, "I'm Crazy" and "Slight Rebellion off Madison," were published in periodicals during the 1940's, and introduced Holden Caulfield, the main character of The Catcher in the Rye. Both short stories were revised for later inclusion in Salinger's novel. The Catcher in the Rye was written in a literary style similar to prose, which was enhanced by the teenage slang of the 1950's. It is a widespread belief that much of Holden Caulfield's candid outlook on life reflects issues relevant to the youth of today, and thus the novel continues to be used as an educational resource in high schools throughout the nation (Davis 317-18).
The first step in reviewing criticism of The Catcher in the Rye is to study the author himself. Before his novel, J.D. Salinger was of basic non-literary status, having written for years without notice from critics or the general public. The Catcher in the Rye was his first step onto the literary playing field. This initial status left Salinger, as a serious writer, almost unique as a sort of free agent, not bound to one or more schools of critics, like many of his contemporaries were. This ability to write freely, his status as a nobody in the literary world, was Salinger's greatest asset. Rather than to scope inside Salinger's mind and create a grea tness for him, we are content instead to note him for what he is: "a beautifully deft, professional performer who gives us a chance to catch quick, half-amused, half-frightened glimpses of ourselves and our contemporaries, as he confronts us with his brilliant mirror images" (Stevenson 217).
Much of Salinger's reputation, which he acquired after publication of The Catcher in the Rye, is derived from thoughtful and sympathetic insights into both adolescence and adulthood, his use of symbolism, and his idiomatic style, which helped to re-introduce the common idiom to American literature. While the young protagonists of Salinger's stories (such as Holden Caulfield) have made him a longtime favorite of high school and university audiences, establishing Salinger as "the spokesman for the goals and values for a generation of youth during the 1950's" (qtd. in Davis 317), The Catcher in the Rye has been banned continually from schools, libraries, and bookstores due to its profanity, sexual subject matter, and rejection of some traditional American ideals. Robert Coles reflected general critical opinion of the author when he called Salinger "an original and gifted writer, a marvelous entertainer, a man free of the slogans and clichés the rest of us fall prey to" (qtd. in Davis 317).
Obviously, the bulk of praise and criticism regarding any novel or piece of literature will come from published critical reviews. When a novel or any piece of literature is published in the United States, critics from newspapers, magazines, and various other sources flock to interpret the book and critique its style. The same was true for Salinger's novel. Noted book reviewers from across America critiqued The Catcher in the Rye, bestowing both praise and criticism at different levels. Each reviewer commented on different parts of the novel, from Holden's cynicism to the apparently homosexual Mr. Antolini. The novel, like any other, was devoured and picked apart piece by piece. It is the role of the researcher, therefore, to analyze the various reviews and develop a clear understanding of the novel.