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The Catcher in the Rye | Study Guide

J. D. Salinger

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Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye with Course Hero's video study guide.

The Catcher in the Rye | Context


In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s the United States enjoyed widespread prosperity but also suffered from paranoia about the rise of communism and the perceived threat it presented to that prosperity. The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951, manages to capture and reflect those tensions between success and fear, fluctuating thematically between hope and disillusion.

Certain elements of Holden Caulfield's character parallel the life of his creator: Holden, like Salinger, fails to thrive at school, finding the conventional environment stifling and meaningless. Both Holden and his creator, however, find significance and meaning in narrative—the telling of stories, be they fact or fiction, and the manipulation of words. Like Salinger, a notorious recluse, Holden seeks anonymity in New York City and, throughout the novel, fantasizes about disappearing.

Salinger worked on the novel during World War II, and some biographers find in Holden's despair and anger the young writer's own wartime trauma. But for generations of readers, it's the traits Holden shares with them that has made him an enduring character. While initially published for an adult audience, the novel was, and continues to be, appropriated by teenagers who see themselves in Holden and share his disillusion with the perceived imperfect, unjust, and inauthentic adult world.

Critical Reception

The Catcher in the Rye generated immediate praise and criticism, joy and outrage. The publisher that first made an offer for the book withdrew the offer when Salinger refused to tame Holden, but Salinger quickly found another publisher willing to publish the novel that some critics have called "obscene" and that has topped lists of banned books for decades.

When the novel debuted, it shocked readers in several ways, from its obvious use of taboo language and discussion of taboo topics to the critical attitude with which Holden dissects society. It quickly climbed to the top tier of the New York Times best-seller list and garnered a Book-of-the-Month Club listing.


The novel's influence extends beyond the world of literature. Holden has become iconic, capturing the sometimes painful process of discovering one's adult identity and leaving the relative safety of childhood. For other readers, Holden is a reassuring companion who reminds them that, however "crazy" they may act from time to time, connection to other caring humans is possible. In that spirit, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry honors recipients each year with the Catchers in the Rye Awards. Each honoree has made "significant contributions to the field of children's mental health" through service and advocacy.

The Catcher in the Rye has prompted not only reading and discussion but also fan fiction. In fact, Salinger, protective of his only novel, successfully sued to stop a writer who attempted to publish an unauthorized sequel to Holden's story. Since Salinger's death, some biographers have claimed that he worked on other stories about Holden and that these stories will someday be published.

The book remains both beloved and controversial. For many young people, reading the novel has become something of a coming-of-age rite, and Holden is a character who stays with many readers as they navigate their own transitions into adulthood.

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