Understanding Salinger – Personality and war experiences as manifested in The Catcher in the Rye


Jerome David Salinger is remembered as one of the most peculiar, reclusive writers of the twentieth century. As Lionel Shriver of The Telegraph points out, not only did he craft one of American literature’s most remarkable teenagers, Holden Caulfield, but he “also opted for what teenagers are prone to: dropping out”; Salinger, in fact, spent the last 45 years of his life writing for himself, and no one else. According to him, “an artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s,” and this belief is reflected in his alter ego, the introverted Holden Caulfield, protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, and Salinger’s youthful caricature.

Salinger’s novel is an accurate interpretation of his experiences as a young man and of societal issues in the United States at the peak of World War II. His direct participation in war and the disorientation that young adults were feeling in the 1940s inspired his bare, pessimistic tone and the themes of innocence, isolation and adult hypocrisy in The Catcher in the Rye.

American isolationism and non-interventionism, which gained ascendency after the atrocities of the Great War, were shattered by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On the political scale, the USA benefited from its involvement in World War II, becoming the world’s leading superpower. On the economic scale, new businesses, modern technologies and the baby boom brought enthusiasm and prosperity. In terms of public life, however, war caused pain and turmoil in the hearts and minds of those growing up. The Catcher in the Rye, set in 1940s New York City, captures the sentiment of dejection and loss that this city’s youth felt as the country recovered from conflict.

Not much is known about Salinger’s childhood. At the age of 15, he entered Valley Forge Military Academy, which would later serve as the basis for Holden’s Pencey Prep, yet his very poor grades forced him to travel to Europe to learn and carry on his father’s business. He worked at a slaughterhouse in Poland and lived ten months in Vienna on the cusp of the Nazi anschluss, two disturbing events which vastly impacted his literature.

Salinger’s poor health initially kept him from entering the army and hindered his chance of survival during battle. In 1942, however, he was admitted into the Officers, First Sergeants and Instructors School of Signal Corps in New Jersey. Forced to change posts and duties frequently, Salinger rose in rank, mastered airplane piloting and became an agent to the Army Counter Intelligence Corps, a job that changed his view on life, especially during his service in the Nuremberg Trials. In 1944, he partook in the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge and was among the first troops to enter Paris on the day of its liberation where he met future colleague and close companion, Ernest Hemingway.

In 1951, under the pretext of reviving recent memories of war and of lecturing aspiring young novelists, he took a trip to England, Scotland and Ireland to avoid the tumult of The Catcher in the Rye’s publication and to escape media attention, which he loathed. As he would say decades later in an interview, “I love to write, and I assure you I write regularly, but I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it.”

The Catcher in the Rye is considered Salinger’s finest work of literature, and Holden Caulfield his most memorable fictional character. The novel’s plot is built upon Salinger’s own teenage adventures and people he was acquainted with in real life; to Salinger himself, it was a simple story populated by simple characters, “There’s no more to Holden Caulfield. Read the book again. It’s all there. Holden Caulfield is only a frozen moment in time.”

The themes and motifs in The Catcher in the Rye, though complex, are presented with minimalism and simplicity, carried in Holden Caulfield’s slang, and in his “candid outlook on life,” which, still now, “reflects issues relevant to the youth of today.” Critics of Salinger’s Catcher, such as Eric Lomazoff, have argued that this story stands out due to its frankness and authenticity: it is “emotional without being sentimental, dramatic without being melodramatic and honest without being obscene.”

Most important of all is the theme of innocence, in a society in which all of its members, even the youngest and purest, were exposed to the crimes and cruelties of war, the devastation of families and the fast-paced, future-oriented motion of the world. As a first-hand contender in the war and as a witness to the rapid changes that America was undergoing, Salinger’s Catcher delves into complex societal problems through the eyes of an adolescent. Indeed, this novel is – in Spanish and German as much as in English – the “handbook of the adolescent heart.”

Holden’s “misconceptions about adulthood” and his disgust at the “phoniness of the adult world” form the basis of his desire for innocence. In times of struggle, he flees to Phoebe, his little sister, and the only person he completely trusts. In her, he sees the wisdom and sensibility that he misses and that he feels the world has lost. She is the one he confesses his dreams to, especially his dream of becoming “the catcher in the rye”; he envisions himself “standing on the edge of a crazy cliff… catch[ing] everybody if they start to go over” (Catcher, 156), all the kids who, in the joyful whirl of childhood fantasy, “don’t look where they’re going” and soon find themselves in the corruption of the adult reality.

Holden himself is torn in his internal fight of innocence versus maturity. His “futile conversations with a prostitute in a hurry,” his intellectual discussion with a group of nuns, and his pathetic date with Sally Hayes are all examples of his inertia to growth, and he feels safer in the untroubled world of his sister. Holden is caught in the middle; he cannot return to his childhood, and yet he refuses to take the steps to adulthood. He is a confused Peter Pan who admits that “sex is something [he] just [doesn’t] understand” (Catcher, 56), and that “girls, they can drive you crazy, they really can” (Catcher, 14). Holden’s typical sentiment of teenage angst is not just a matter of hormones, but also a reaction to the “snobbery, injustice and callousness” of the world around him. This brings us to another important theme of The Catcher in the Rye: isolation as a form of self-protection.

Holden Caulfield is undoubtedly a solitary character and his distrust in adults pushes him farther off the outskirts of civilization. He wants to be a deaf-mute, for example, demonstrating his aversion to communication: “I figured that I could get a job at a filling station… just so people didn’t know me and I didn’t know anybody… if anybody wanted to tell me something, they’d have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They’d get bored as hell doing that… and then I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life” (Catcher, 198). Holden’s alienation, however, not only causes him to develop bitterness toward others, but also to become self-centered. Holden segregates himself as a response to the stagnant, deceitful society he lives in. He longs to live in a museum, where “everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move, nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you” (Catcher, 109). But his dreams are made impossible by reality.

On the whole, The Catcher in the Rye is much more than a coming-of-age novel. Not only does it convey common teenage feelings of anger and fear, but also resentment and disappointment toward the cruel consequences of war for which the adult world is to blame. As a 16-year-old boy with a mind of his own, he detects incivility and shallowness in those adults who – especially in times of hardship – are supposed to behave as role models to younger generations.

Like Holden, Salinger silently contemplated society, yet was repulsed by its intense hatred and hypocrisy. He was labeled as “curious and compassionate,” he loved children as much as Holden admires his sister Phoebe. Salinger’s withdrawal from the media for 45 years has cemented his mystique, and though we might not know a great deal of his personal life, an artist shrouded in mystery is more likely to be remembered than one who spends his life in the spotlight. After all, it’s lonely on pedestals.

Maria Elena Sandalli


Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York – Boston: Little Brown and Company Edition, 1991.

Online bibliography

Gopnik, Adam. “J.D. Salinger was a writer, not just a myth: The New Yorker.” The New Yorker, 8 Feb. 2010. <http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2010/02/08/100208ta_talk_gopnik&gt;
Lomazoff, Eric. “The Praises and Criticisms of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.”
LEVITY. <http:// www. levity. com/corduroy/salinger1.htm>
Shriver, Lionel. “Why did J.D. Salinger recoil from his fame?” Telegraph, 30 Jan. 2010. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/7104776/Why-did-JD-Salinger-recoil-from-his-fame.html&gt;
Slawenski, Kenneth. “Dead Caulfields.” Dead Caulfields. <http://www.deadcaulfields.com&gt;
“SparkNotes: The Catcher In The Rye.” SparkNotes: Today’s Most Popular Study Guides. <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit&gt;

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