“The Catcher in the Rye”, the 1951 novel by J.D. Salinger was at once the most taught and banned book in America.
The novel details two days in the life of a sensitive 16-year-old, Holden Caulfield, who returns to New York to break the news to his parents of his recent expulsion from school.
Disillusioned with the falseness of the adult world he keeps the meeting at bay with a series of encounters around the city, and finally finds a reason to smile in his young sister Phoebe with whom he spends some time at a Zoo, cementing a central theme of lost innocence.
The book ends with Caulfield, also our narrator, admitting that he may have had a breakdown over the past few days, and will return to a new school in the fall.
“The Catcher in The Rye” has an undeniable power. It is a remarkably accurate portrait of a uniquely teenage pessimism. And yet, nothing really happens in the story that leaps out and demands it be banned.
However, conservative voices who sought to suppress the novel would not have to wait long for several world-shaking incidents to make their case.
President Ronald Regan’s would-be killer, John Hinckley Jr, was influenced by the book. As was Robert John Bardo, the murderer of 21-year-old TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer.
John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, was arrested with a copy of the book that he had purchased that same day, inside of which he had written: “To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement”.
Something unsettling stirs within its pages.
None of these killers read a direct, nor even an indirect command to kill in Salinger’s text. What they found was a lost, alienated child/man. They stumbled upon a mirror in other words, that reflected their own disenchantment back at them.
Now we know the book to be deadly, why do we suffer it on our library shelves? Sure, time has muted Caulfield somewhat, but what solid ground did censors ever have to stand on? Its unrelenting cynicism? If so, how many of the great works of art would survive? Good art could almost be defined by its holding at least a streak of cynicism. This is what made 70’s cinema so great, and classic film noir the most compelling offering of ‘Old Hollywood’.
The book’s danger is in how it explains the alienated to themselves; its uncanny articulation of the storm brewing within them. But this is always art’s ultimate aspiration, surely? To introduce our true selves to ourselves?
State censorship, in the form of projects like the failed reform of hate speech laws, imagines that the most overt, vile, and bombastic expressions of hate are what convert the desperate into the murderous. When given a chance to properly discuss the proposed hate speech laws with Paul Hunt, the chief commissioner at our Human Rights Chief commission, I challenged this view and expressed my own that a full-throated racist sledging on Twitter worries me far less than aspects of the anti-Israel movement which seek to normalise antisemitism through a patient and long campaign – hateful missives that would never be captured by any speech law.
He didn’t have much to say in reply, likely because he broadly agrees with the cause. The censor never dreams for a moment that they themselves should potentially be a target.
But as someone who encounters bigotry, I stand by this: the most bombastic racist is a poor recruiter. What we should fear most, but can never predict, is a radical loser’s chance encounter with themselves, in a book, in a film, a protest movement, or even in a song.
In truth we can never foresee what will spark a revolution within a soul. Our focus should therefore shift from words, to what makes a ‘Caulfield’ in the first place.