Language. Alcohol. Sex. Angst. Elements bound to cause controversy, yet they and so much more can be found in the pages of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a 1951 literary classic. Narrated by the infamous pessimist Holden Caulfield, whose personality resembles that of a cynical stormcloud with a drinking problem, this work relates the coming-of-age story of a boy wandering the streets of New York having flunked out of prep school. With its excessive profanities, sexual references, underage drinking, and melancholy narrator, The Catcher in the Rye poses the question of whether or not it should be censored in schools, an issue teachers and scholars alike debate thoroughly.
Personally speaking, the novel should undoubtedly take part of higher-level school curriculum (taught with careful analysis, of course) because it is a realistic story with which teenagers can relate. However, personal opinion aside, its blatant obscene content often causes controversy, making it one of the most banned literary works in America.
Such content includes swearing (237 “goddams,” 58 “bastards,” and 32 “chrissakes” to be exact¹), sex, deceit, alcohol abuse, secular ideologies, and even homosexuality. It is therefore perceived as an unholy machination by the education system to destroy the ethics of a nation’s students.
Holden Caulfield is an antihero, a character who believes himself to be a martyr of the world and who lacks typical heroic qualities such as optimism or virtue. And though he may have many warped views and bad habits, his actions are very understandable. His speech is excessively pessimistic and vulgar and his actions immoral because he’s a teenager. He agrees to meet with a prostitute partially because he’s lonely, and this loneliness might also explain his alcohol consumption prevalent in the novel.
The Catcher in the Rye as a whole treats juveniles with a special kind of respect and recognition, speaking to teens’ morality. It addresses isolation and a struggle to make sense of the world. Ergo, it should be taught in schools, but with guidance. Teachers should prompt their class on what they, the students, interpret Holden’s various statements or actions to mean and then offer their own professional insight on the deeper meaning.
Classic literature should not be censored for young adults in general, because the act of banning books is a slippery slope which can lead to the removal of classic, beloved works just for some peace of mind. To shield teenagers from negativity and criticism of society is to teach them that pessimistic views are not allowed. And by doing so, it isolates the youth consumed by their troubles, causing the very thing that the censors are trying to prevent.
Furthermore, it makes modern-day readers better understand the past. On the surface, it merely tells the story of its protagonist, but it also subtly describes the change in philosophy and thought in society post-World-War II, providing criticism of middle-class America. After all, a better understanding of past societal views and values helps current society adjust accordingly.
But above all, it is relatable. It does not romanticize the teenage years as much as it makes them more understandable. Adolescence is undoubtedly stressful, and reading a book where the narrator reacts to this stress with a less-than-positive attitude mirrors the pessimism many teenagers themselves feel. And like many argue, Holden’s actions and feelings should not be praised but instead pitied.
Censorship is a well-debated issue and often evokes controversy, but it is something to consider when dealing with literature that has so much to offer. Even with his crude words and inappropriate behavior, Holden has profound thoughts that resonate within the minds of equally troubled teenagers. In any case, The Catcher in the Rye is more than just a trite tale of adolescent angst, and Holden’s dream of being the catcher in the rye just might be fulfilled when teens read this book and learn from his mistakes.
¹ Steinle, Pamela. “‘If a Body Catch a Body’: The Catcher in the Rye Censorship Debate as Expression of Nuclear Culture.” Popular Culture and Political Change in Modern America. Ed. Ronald Edsforth and Larry Bennett. State University of New York Press, 1991. 127-136. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 138. Gale, 2001. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Feb. 2016.
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