'Catcher's' Holden turns golden oldie

If you were a loser in high school, if your peers were a bunch of prep-school phonies and you were mad at the whole "crumby" world - chances are that, somehow, you got your hands on a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye."

No matter how you first acquired the book - wrapped in brown paper or handed out as required reading for English class - it may come as a surprise that Holden Caulfield, voice of adolescent anguish in the wilderness of '50s prep-school America, could now join the American Association of Retired Persons.

This month, "The Catcher in the Rye" turns 50, with no public fanfare planned by its publisher, Little, Brown, and Co., in accordance with its author's wishes. Meanwhile, the long-standing debate about whether J.D. Salinger's first novel is great American literature or a threat to the morals of youth still limps along in a handful of school districts nationwide.

Upon its publication in 1951, "Catcher" met a spate of criticism. Though reviewers generally acknowledged Salinger as a young writer of considerable talent, they mostly panned his book. James Stern's review in The New York Times was an embarrassing parody of Salinger's style: "This Salinger, he's a short-story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. [But] he should have cut out a lot about all these jerks and all at that crumby school. They depress me. They really do."

T. Morris Longstreth of The Christian Science Monitor fretted that the book would - "as too easily happens when immorality and perversion are recounted by writers of talent" - multiply the population of disaffected boys like Holden, who rejects "the normal activities of boyhood, games, the outdoors, friendship."

The book was banned in numerous US school districts after its publication, on the grounds that it was "smut," "anti-white," "filthy and profane," "explicitly pornographic," and "immoral." "Catcher" continued to draw criticism and court challenges from parents and community members well into the 1990s.

A loyal following

But at the same time, the book was developing a loyal following among readers and educators. From the mid-1950s through the 1990s, "The Catcher in the Rye" often appeared on the American Library Association's annual list of "Outstanding Books for the College Bound." By 1981, it was both the most frequently censored book in America and the second most frequently taught in US public schools. Sixty million copies have been sold since its publication.

Robert Henningsen, an English teacher at John Burroughs School in St. Louis, first read "Catcher" in college in the 1960s, and loved it. Mr. Henningsen taught the novel to eighth-grade students for years, until it was recently switched the 11th-grade curriculum.

"When you love a book so much as I do this one," he says, "You run the risk of being disappointed when your class is disappointed - when they don't appreciate it to the extent that you do. The one case where it's very rare to find a student who doesn't embrace a novel wholeheartedly is 'The Catcher in the Rye.' "

Henningsen says students who like the book partly respond to Holden's voice. It "catches them and holds them, and propels them through," he says.

They also recognize Holden as one of their own. "The book speaks particularly to someone who's trying to understand the world and his or her place in it: recognizing, as I think best a child can, the inadequacies in adult behavior and the compromises we're so willing to make - and [wondering] why we're not disturbed about it more than we are."

"That dejection - with the world that you're growing into and you're supposed to embrace and trust - speaks very clearly and loudly to teens today."

Even his students who don't like the novel respond to it, Henningsen says. Often it's the kids who relate to Holden, and most "share that same kind of open-eyed sensitivity to the world, that impatience and dejection with its hypocrisy," who don't enjoy the book, because Holden's disappointment rings so true with them.

Global appeal

Over the years, "Catcher" has resonated with scores of readers worldwide, many of whom have taken the title as creative or commercial inspiration. The band Catcher & The Rye, from Limerick, Ireland, boasts such original songs as "Fishes in Your Head" and "Blonde Hair is Fine." A London pub called The Catcher in the Rye advertises Jenga and Twister competitions as its major selling points. There's even a Chinese band named Catcher in the Rye.

And these days, a Web search for "The Catcher in the Rye" yields thousands of oddball links, including a Fisher Price-inspired cartoon rendering of Holden's New York odyssey, and photo-diaries of numerous fans' Big Apple "Catcher" pilgrimages.

Small wonder, then, that the octogenarian Salinger has for years chosen to live a secluded life in Cornish, N.H., closely guarded by family and friends. As he once wrote: "A writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him."

Take a "Catcher" quiz at: http://www.cliffs notes.com/tests/catcherintherye/quiz.asp.

no phony: Once banned in schools nationwide, the 50-year-old novel has become an American classic.

Where 'Catcher' has caught on

Winona Ryder, Bill Gates, Jane Pauley, and Pete Sampras have all identified "The Catcher in the Rye" as their favorite book.

When he was arrested for the 1980 shooting of ex-Beatle John Lennon, assassin Mark Chapman had a copy of "Catcher" in his pocket.

W.P. Kinsella's 1982 novel "Shoeless Joe," on which the movie "Field of Dreams" was based, involves real-life recluse J.D. Salinger as a fictional main character.

Billy Joel's 1989 song "We Didn't Start the Fire" includes a verse on the major events of 1951: "Rosenbergs, H-bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom,/Brando, The King and I, and The Catcher in the Rye."

The band Green Day's 1992 song "Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?" includes the lyric "There's a boy who fogs his world and now he's getting lazy./There's no motivation and frustration makes him crazy./He makes a plan to take a stand but always ends up sitting./Someone help him up or he's gonna end up quitting."

The five orphaned siblings on the FOX-TV show "Party of Five" were called the Salinger family.

A first edition of "The Catcher in the Rye" in mint condition can fetch as much as $10,500 at auction.

In 1998, writer Joyce Maynard published ''At Home in the World,'' a memoir of her 1972 affair, at age 18, with a 53-year-old Salinger.

In 2000, the author's daughter Margaret Salinger published the memoir "Dream Catcher," in which she characterized her father as "a dreamer who barely can tie his own shoelaces."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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