I wrote this essay as an assignment on J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye for a Language & Composition class I took last year. Someone suggested that I post it on my blog, and since I find it pertinent today in the wake of controversies over texts such as Huckleberry Finn (and, to a lesser extent, Harry Potter), here it is. Honestly, though, I just happen to like this essay. The footnotes and bibliography are attached here, for sake of space. Comments/criticism welcome, just keep in mind the rules of internet civility (whatever that is…).
[Note:As of October 2011, I submitted a graded copy of this essay to Ursinus College to be considered as part of my application.]
Ranked on both Time’s “All Time 100 Novels” list and the American Library Association’s list of “Banned and Challenged Classics,” J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is indubitably among America’s most influential tomes. Its position on the all-time list of novels is deserved: over ten million copies have been sold, and sales continue at a rate of approximately 250,000 per year. Its place on the list of oft banned books, however, is unfortunate. Detractors seek to prohibit the text’s presence on school shelves because of its inclusion of swearing, anti-religious sentiment, teenage rebellion, and sexuality. This judgment, however, is too broad because it fails to consider the subtleties of Salinger’s message.
The most common complaint leading to the censorship of Catcher is that it contains “excess vulgar language”. The “237 instances of ‘goddamn,’…31 ‘Chrissakes,’ [and] six examples of ‘fuck’” (enough to earn an R rating, were it a movie) tabulated by one worried citizen are deemed to be bad influences on children. Parents, teachers, and students are often shocked by main character Holden Caulfield’s constant swearing and worried that “young readers might want to emulate Holden.” Others point out the apparent “double standard” of requiring students to read a text replete with words forbidden in the classroom. However, these reactions can be allayed upon closer investigation. First, students do not live in a bubble: they are exposed to Holden-type language on television, on the internet, in movies, in real life. Second, Holden’s and Salinger’s attitudes towards swearing must be considered. Holden is a typical prep-school student who swears because of habit, not because he means what he says. For example, his goddams (lowercase g) are emotionally-charged expressions, not blasphemies. His diction is colloquial—authentic. To exclude swearing would be to exclude a part of Holden’s character: the novel would function, but only feebly. This reasoning does not condone Holden’s language; it explains its importance. In addition, Holden himself condemns some swearing. He reflects, “Somebody’d written ‘fuck you’ on the wall [of the elementary school]. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it…I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it.” Ironically, Holden’s reaction is similar to that of censors: he attempts to erase the graffiti, reminding the reader of a key principle: maturity level. Obviously, this text is not appropriate for elementary school students. However, under the guidance of a teacher, mature students can grasp the message of Holden’s language. Teachers can instruct students on the meaning of swearing and present better alternatives for use in their own lives.
Many censors view Holden’s profanities and apparent blasphemies as indicative of an underlying problem: anti-religious attitudes. Holden himself openly admits that he is “sort of an atheist.” Some worry that Holden’s rebellious religious tendencies may negatively influence students, who “do not yet know all of what they believe.” This assertion is flawed in two ways. Holden is against religious hypocrisy, not religion; he identifies religious hypocrisy (“phoniness”) as religion because the only religion he has ever known was hypocritical. For example, he dislikes the disciples, because they “keep letting [Jesus] down”, and ministers, who “sound so phony”. However, he likes a pair of nuns enough to give them a donation. Why?— because they were genuine: they carried “inexpensive-looking suitcases” and ate “toast and coffee.” This is good religion to Holden: not showy or pretentious, only sincere. Additionally, Holden’s apparently anti-religious sentiments are a reflection of his internal conflict and searching. He calls himself “sort of an atheist”8 (emphasis added)—he is unsure what he believes. Holden faces the same struggles as many teenagers (who “do not yet know all of what they believe”)9. His conflict is their conflict. His experience is relevant, almost tangible. By presenting this material to students, teachers can assist them in understanding their own struggles and forming their own beliefs in a careful, intelligent fashion. Thus, Holden’s attitude should be studied, not shunned.
Holden’s apparent religious rebellion is only one symptom of his broader rebellion that provokes censorship. Holden flunked out of school for “not applying” himself. At sixteen years old, he admits that he “felt like getting stinking drunk” and “smoked about three cartons that day”. In addition, Holden is a chronic liar: he lies to a schoolmate’s mother; he lies to a prostitute; he lies to the bartender. Many fear that Holden’s rebellious behaviors, like his swearing, may set a bad example for students and be seen as “contradictory” to school codes of conduct that promote academic excellence and forbid substance abuse. Others counter that “students are smart enough to realize that some of the behavior Caulfield demonstrates is not appropriate”. Salinger’s inclusion of these tendencies, however, is not to condone, but to condemn. He lies to avoid hurting his schoolmate’s mother’s feelings, but soon feels sorry. He lies to the prostitute because he sees it as the only way to avoid having sex with her. And he lies to get alcohol. He drinks because he wants to escape from his problems, but it helps him not. When he gets drunk, he’s “a madman” and still “depressed and lonesome.” Salinger is not encouraging readers to imitate Holden’s behavior—he is warning them against it. Cigarettes squander his money; lies—even white ones—tug at his conscience; alcohol hurls him into a wild sea of emotions. Teachers, therefore, must emphasize the negative consequences Holden suffers as a result of his behavior as a warning to students.
“Wait, did you say a prostitute?” gasp worried censors. The level of sexuality described in Catcher is viewed by some as a “teenage primer to debauchery” which is “not fit for a 16-year-old to read.” They cite Holden’s hiring of a prostitute, a scene involving a cross-dresser and a couple spitting water at each other, and an ambiguously homosexual action by a former teacher as reasons to ban the text. To this, one student responds, “Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean people are going to go out and start doing it.” Nevertheless, these issues must be considered at a greater depth before judgment is made. In regards to the prostitute, Holden admits that he hired her because he was “so depressed [he] didn’t even think” (emphasis original); he later sends her away because she made him “more depressed” (emphasis added). As with alcoholism, Salinger is using Holden’s experience with a prostitute as a warning to readers, not an encouragement. The cross-dresser, the water-squirting couple, and the apparently homosexual situation: Holden views them all as “pervert[ed]” and “crumby.” This demonstrates his moral code: he is criticizing these issues, the same issues at which censors cringe. Furthermore, Holden is a virgin: he respects girls when they “tell [him] to stop.” Salinger depicts a moral, but confused teenager, who admits that “sex is something [he] just [doesn’t] understand” and seeks input from an older student who “knew quite a bit about sex”. To this, adolescent students can relate: like Holden, they may be confused and curious about sex. Thus, Catcher is a portal through which teachers can educate students about topics that otherwise might not be addressed.
Despite the presence of swearing, apparently anti-religious sentiment, rebellion, and sexuality, The Catcher in the Rye should not be banned by schools, private or public. In private institutions, students and their families make the choice to study. They bear greater responsibility for the content of their education, and though they may possess the power to forbid the inclusion of a book, they should not. Especially in private schools, the classroom is a place of scholarship—a place of intellectual security in which difficult topics can be freely discussed. Though students attending public institutions often attend by default, school boards and superintendents should not assume the right to censor a text. The role of school boards or superintendents is to encourage open educational discussion and learning, not to squelch views they oppose—or fear. If a text is banned because people fear its content (often misunderstood), its inclusion in classrooms (where it can be studied and understood) is the remedy, not the problem. In addition, censoring a book in any school context is an impingement on First Amendment rights, unless a book is removed because it is “pervasively vulgar.” On the surface, Catcher may appear to fit this definition. Upon closer investigation, it does not. Salinger’s intent is not to promote the vulgar topics and behaviors he addresses; it is to engage the reader in deeper contemplation about these issues. With the guidance of a good teacher, mature students can learn the same lessons discovered by the ten million before them.
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