The Catcher in the Rye

Catholic Educators and the Death of Innocence

Julie Collorafi

(Posted April 30, 2008 The abiding devotion Catholic educators nationwide have for a book which not only accepted the loss of innocence as a necessary precondition for adulthood, but also broke the barrier of decency fifty years ago for profanity and lewdness, is unfathomable.  This popular coming-of-age novel, at once the most banned and  best-selling book of all time, and which caused the banishment of two teaching nuns devoted to it from a Catholic college fifty years ago by their bishop,2 has, nevertheless, quietly remained on the required reading list in Catholic high schools for decades and is universally hailed as an American classic.

The focus of intense controversy since its publication in 1951, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is widely venerated as a symbol of freedom from censorship.  While the book, strangely enough, never provoked much debate in Catholic schools, and Catholics in their forties and fifties recall reading this “naughty” novel in Catholic high schools, it was once protested strongly in public schools across the country.

For example, in 1976, a Long Island school board, the president of whom was a traditional Catholic, removed Catcher in the Rye along with ten other objectionable books from the school library, causing a furor of protest from students and parents which went all the way to the Supreme Court.

In the Supreme Court’s 5-4 landmark ruling on Island Trees School District v. Pico, Justice William Brennan denied the right of local school boards to remove books from school library shelves “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books," and claimed, in his majority opinion, that “the Constitution protects the right (of students) to receive information and ideas through  the First Amendment.” 1 The book is now an unquestioned part of virtually every public high school English program.

When my oldest son brought this novel home four years ago from his Catholic high school, I began my own lonely and futile crusade against it.  My polite request that my son be assigned an alternative book was met with a roar of indignation from the brown-habited religious brother, principal of the school.  In two lengthy phone conversations, he berated me angrily, utterly outraged that I would question his professional judgment in assigning such a book to 15 year-old students—a book which, it has been calculated, has 295 instances of swearing using God’s name, and 795 other profanities, besides a graphic depiction of a suicide and numerous descriptions of the main character’s sexual adventures.

A letter of complaint to the bishop followed, with no response, so, after giving my son Cliff notes to read instead of the book, I reluctantly dropped the matter, with the resolution that none of my other children would ever attend Catholic high schools in this diocese.

Like a recurring nightmare, however, the book has recently resurfaced, this time the subject of an enthusiastic two-part series in our diocesan paper.  The author, Fr. R. Lauder, a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, praises the dysfunctional protagonist, Holden Caulfield, as “a lovable dreamer,” and extols the novel as “an extraordinary good work of art,” delighted that his own young niece is just starting to read it in school.

It is undeniable that the controversial novel is ingeniously constructed and that the main character is sketched with sympathy and affection.   The seemingly incoherent, rambling first-person narrative of a disturbed adolescent manages to compress in a few hundred pages a remarkable and obviously allegorical journey of self-discovery through the skillful use of symbol, allusion and detail.

Holden Caulfield begins his tale as he stands on the edge of a hill near an expensive boarding school, the third from which he has been expelled.  Afraid to tell his parents of his expulsion, he heads homeward alone, and embarks on a two-day adventure in New York City where he has various encounters with a prostitute, a pimp, and an older, experienced acquaintance, climaxing with a meeting with a former teacher, Mr. Antolini, to whom he pours out his troubles. When the teacher makes a surreptitious pass at him, this is the ultimate betrayal, the last of a long list of adult failures and indifference.

Now on the brink of insanity, Holden returns home where he confides in his little sister Phoebe, his last friend in the world, mentioning for the first time his unresolved grief at the recent death of his little brother Allie from leukemia, and the reader realizes the reason for much of his anger and defiance.  He also tells her of his dream to be a “catcher in the rye,” inspired by a song he heard a little boy sing.  Holden envisions himself as the only big person in a huge field of rye catching little children as they fall off a cliff, an allusion to Robert Burns’ slyly suggestive poem, “Coming Thro’ the Rye,” which artfully describes a secret tryst in a field of just-ripening rye.

Taking Phoebe for a carousel ride in the park, in a highly symbolic act, Phoebe begins to fall from her horse as she reaches for the gold ring.  Holden, however, does not reach out to save her, and feels strangely happy, almost euphoric, in his realization that it is impossible for him to save her and other little children from falling from innocence, an inescapable condition, the reader is led to conclude, for grabbing the gold ring of adulthood.

By the end of the book Holden is in a mental institution, slowly on his way to recovery, the reader can assume, after absolving himself of his own self-imposed obligation to be a “catcher in the rye,” a savior of the innocence of young children approaching adolescence, which was causing him such mental and emotional distress.

The huge irony of this book, and one that has not been missed by its devotees, is that both Holden and the many parents who object to Salinger’s novel, are “catchers in the rye.”  Although they are sympathetically viewed by the author, they are ultimately dismissed as tragic heroes, on an impossible mission, unable to survive in the modern world.

Holden’s defiance and rebellion are symptoms of his anger at the apathetic, insensitive, “phony” adults in his life who have not prevented his own fall from virtue during his difficult coming of age.  He is determined, nonetheless, to protect the fresh wonder and fragility of Phoebe’s innocence from the same fate.

His compulsion to protect Phoebe and all young children from his sordid experiences is dramatically heightened by the recent death of his little brother Allie from cancer.  Holden’s anger and grief were left unresolved because he was hospitalized during the funeral after he injured his hand breaking a window in frustration when Allie died.  It is gradually made clear that Holden is not only mourning Allie, but is also mourning his own tragic and untimely loss of innocence,  the little boy he once was, the little innocent Holden whom he murdered by his own fall from virtue, symbolized by his act of self-immolation on the broken window glass.

In keeping with the stark existentialist tone of the novel, however, Holden is left to untangle the difficulties of adolescence, infinitely complicated by his brother’s death, entirely on his own without adult help. In a world devoid of absolutes or certainties, Holden must work through his redemption without reference to anything but his own experience.

Interestingly, the only one who can help Holden is young  Phoebe, whose name, incidentally, means light and brightness.  Her unconditional love and wise advice save him in the end, a surprising recognition by the author that wisdom and innocence are inextricably connected.  Holden, the older of the two, is confused and broken, the result of his own fall from innocence, while his little sister is almost preternaturally controlled and mature.

As his sanity increasingly dissolves at the end, Holden, forced to come to his own conclusions, realizes he cannot continue to be the “catcher in the rye” for Phoebe and other children; they must reach for adulthood themselves even if they must fall in the process.  At the carousel, Holden did not reach out to save Phoebe from falling since saving her is the crucial admission that his own sexual misbehavior is wrong.

This is Salinger’s reluctant conclusion: as tragic as the loss of innocence and the end of childhood are, they are the inevitable consequence of the transition into a sexually liberated adolescence and adulthood.

Some will not survive this difficult transition, as is suggested by the suicide of James Castle at Holden’s school whose voluntary death is widely interpreted as an attempt to maintain his moral  integrity.  The name “Castle,” of course, symbolizes a medieval fortress mentality, a mentality Holden admires but which the author is strongly hinting is impossible to sustain, like the attitude of the antiquated “catchers in the rye.”

We see how Holden himself makes it through the passage to adulthood crippled and deeply scarred, but alive,  just barely “holdin’ on” to his emotional and mental integrity.  We meet other characters in the book who have seemingly surrendered their innocence without regret and who thrive on cruelty and depravity, well on their way to becoming callous, ugly, insensitive adults.  The thing that matters, apparently, is not that one loses one’s innocence, since that is inevitable, but that one does so with some reluctance and pain, as Holden does.  If this is the case, the reader is supposed to conclude, one will emerge from the trials of adolescence a reasonably sensitive adult, sensitivity being the virtue most prized by modern educators.

The big problem with Salinger’s conclusion, however, is the assumption that the passage to adulthood must be accompanied by a loss of innocence or naiveté, a loss of innocence, moreover, which is forcibly imposed upon children by modern educators in the books they must read and in mandatory sex education courses at pre-determined levels, without regard to the individual needs of the child or the wishes of parents.  The compulsory death of innocence, alas, has long been ritually enshrined in the education of the young.

Because Catcher in the Rye is a fascinating (if somewhat monotonous) read, and students find in Holden a completely sympathetic figure, it is the perfect vehicle for introducing young students to a world like Holden’s where no rules exist—he admits himself how he keeps making up his own sex rules, though he always ends up breaking them—and where he is, in his mind at least, “the biggest sex maniac” around.  His bittersweet longing for the innocent world of childhood and his dream of being a “catcher in the rye” is enough to assuage the consciences of teachers and students alike as they simultaneously accept his sexually liberated lifestyle.

As numerous literary classics have demonstrated, however, a character’s passage to adulthood does not have to involve a corresponding loss of virtue and innocence.  Several wonderful and uplifting coming-of-age novels come to mind where the character emerges from the trials of adolescence a strong, confident, sensitive and reasonably virtuous young adult:  the Little Britches series, David Copperfield, Kidnapped, Captains Courageous, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Chosen, and my personal favorite, Seventeen, by Booth Tarkington, a tale of an awkward, self-absorbed youth who stumbles into adulthood, told with great sympathy and humor--all of these without the rapid and unnecessary desensitization of the young reader by  constant profanity and graphic details as used in Salinger’s novel and others of that ilk.

The misguided celebration of the modern anti-hero as typified by poor Holden Caulfield  has resonated deeply with a whole caste of similarly broken adults who are fixed forever, it would seem, in a state of rebellious and degenerate adolescence, a state of desperate dysfunction that often culminates in violence and death.  Among these are John Hinckley, Jr., whose copy of Catcher in the Rye was found in his hotel room after he shot President Reagan, and Mark David Chapman, who believed “the big part of me is Holden Caufield”3 and who was clutching Catcher in the Rye  as he sent one bullet after the other into the body of John Lennon while Lennon’s wife and son looked on in an agony of horror and grief.

It is fervently to be hoped that Catholic educators will someday offer instead the model of the wise and virtuous hero, as sustained and developed in the Western literary tradition,  as the best inspiration and enlightenment of our young.


1   te , 319 U.S., at 642 . Such purposes stand inescapably condemned by our precedents._School_District_v._Pico