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Raise High the Bookshelves, Censors!

ISSUE:  Spring 2002

In Cold Fear: The Catcher in the Rye, Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character. By Pamela Hunt Steinle. Ohio State. $45.00.

The Catcher in the Rye has done strange things to people. In late 1980, Mark David Chapman stuck a copy of J.D. Salinger’s book in his pocket as he stalked and then murdered John Lennon. Before the New York police arrived, the assassin began re-reading the novel to himself. Even when he was being sentenced, the defendant read aloud the passage that begins with “anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids” and ends with “I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.” In high school John Hinckley, Jr. was startled to learn that Lennon had been murdered, and then grew up to try to kill President Reagan. In Hinckley’s hotel room, police found a 1981 John Lennon color calendar as well as half a dozen paperbacks. One of them was The Catcher in the Rye. In John Guare’s 1990 play, Six Degrees of Separation, an imposter who calls himself Paul insinuates himself into an upper-crust family, pretending to be a Harvard student who has just been mugged. He claims that his thesis is devoted to Salinger’s novel because of its odd connections to criminal loners: “A substitute teacher out on Long Island was dropped from his job for fighting with a student. A few weeks later, the teacher returned to the classroom, shot the student unsuccessfully, held the class hostage and then shot himself. Successfully. This fact caught my eye: last sentence. Times. A neighbor described him as a nice boy. Always reading Catcher in the Rye.” Paul then mentions “the nitwit— Chapman,” who had insisted that “the reading of that book would be his defense” for having killed Lennon, and then Hinckley, who said “if you want my defense all you have to do is read Catcher in the Rye. It seemed to be time to read it again.”

Pamela Hunt Steinle has done so. An associate professor of American Studies at California State University at Fullerton, she has studied communal as well as academic responses to the novel, taken testimony, examined newspaper accounts, and considered this novel as an index of cultural crisis. Steinle has discerned an odd entwining of opposing reactions to the novel Few works of fiction published in the United States since the Second World War have been more admired, more cherished, more popular. Nor has any aroused so often the ire of censors. Salinger’s only novel has never been out of print in his native land and still sells almost a quarter of a million copies per year. Yet in 1973 the American School Board Journal called The Catcher in the Rye “the most widely censored book in the United States.” Six years later L.B. Woods, a historian of censorship, reported that The Catcher in the Rye had already become “the second-most frequently taught novel in public high schools.” Yet it ranked first in the frequency with which it was banned.(The closest competition consisted of the works of Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, such as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.) Public librarians report as well that no postwar American novel other than Salinger’s has been subjected to more energetic efforts to prevent the young from reading it.

The relevant ancestor of Holden Caulfield is another independentminded lad born to trouble; and you can’t know about him without having read a book by Mr. Mark Twain called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which told the truth mainly about the youthful intensity of the yearning for authenticity and innocence. What both boys share is the fate of being beloved and banned; indeed the latter may have boosted the former. When the Concord, Massachusetts public library proscribed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn soon after its publication, the author gloated that not even his Innocents Abroad had sold more copies more quickly; and “those idiots in Concord” “have given us a rattling tip-top puff which will go into every paper in the country. . . . That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure.” Published in 1951, Salinger’s novel does not appear to have been kept off the shelves in Concord, but did stir up enough fear and anxiety to make many Americans seem a bit daffy. Indeed, in the 1997 thriller entitled Conspiracy Theory, Julia Roberts realizes how fully Mel Gibson’s mind has been played with when she notices the numerous copies of The Catcher in the Rye he has purchased. Nor does he understand his own mysterious compulsion to buy the copies. It now seems almost eerily preordained that, though Holden Caulfield is famous for his epithet “phony,” he mentions the word “crazy” and its cognates (like “mad,” “madman,” and “insane”) even more often. The slightly older teenager who first recommended this novel to this reviewer himself soon thereafter suffered a mental breakdown.

What could scarcely have been foreseen is the trouble Holden Caulfield—an estranged American Adam—would cause. An early sign was the publication review in The Christian Science Monitor, which declared The Catcher in the Rye unfit “for children to read.” Its central character is “preposterous, profane, and pathetic beyond belief.” Yet many young readers might somehow want to emulate Holden, “as too easily happens when immorality and perversion are recounted by writers of talent whose work is countenanced in the name of art or good intention.” The reviewer in the Catholic World also disliked the narrator’s “excessive use of amateur swearing and coarse language.” Such warnings were taken seriously by parents who tried to ban the novel over the next half-century, and their efforts at keeping The Catcher in the Rye high enough on the shelves to be out of the reach of children constitute the heart of In Cold Fear. Steinle has found the forces of suppression at work in remote hamlets, and in cities as large as Baltimore and Buffalo as well. Folly is inseparable from any such attempts to ban a book as distinguished as Salinger’s.

A decade after its publication, a high school administrator in Marin County, California opined that this novel “would be weakening the moral fiber of the students, making them susceptible to Communism.” In that state’s Boron High School, located on the edge of the Mojave Desert, The Catcher in the Rye was removed from the supplementary reading list, thanks to accusations of profanity. Salinger had after all wanted to capture the adolescent lingo in the worst way. Vickie Swindler, the mother of a teenaged girl, was startled to see three “goddams” on page 32, and recalled phoning the school. “How the hell [sic] did this teacher get this book?”, the irate Ms. Swindler demanded to know. In other school districts, Holden’s proclivity for “Chrissake” doomed the novel; to take the divine name in vain amounted to a literary crime. In Calhoun County, Alabama, about 50 Baptist ministers got The Catcher in the Rye banned from school libraries in 1982, even though very few of the preachers had actually read the novel to which they so strenuously objected. The celebrated painting which Norman Rockwell did in 1943 of one of the Four Freedoms, in which an earnest citizen speaks his mind at a civic gathering, is therefore given a twist in Steinle’s account: “Freedom of Speech” might be portraying the denunciation of a novel like Salinger’s, expressing the democratic will to suppress what is disagreeable or menacing.

In Cold Fear is adroit and invaluable in contextualizing the turmoil that The Catcher in the Rye has aroused, and bends over backward to be fair to censorious parents and their allies among the local clergy. Particularly in the second half of the 20th century, champions of the First Amendment—such as librarians and literary critics—have defeated the legions of decency; and therefore the author has needed to make a genuine effort to do justice to the censors, even when many of them could not be troubled to read the book that they vilified. Some parents did voice conscientious objections to it, and were even canny enough to use Holden Caulfield to muffle himself. The parents in Boron High School, for example, compared their own motives to his dream of becoming a catcher in the rye, so that the innocence of childhood might be kept intact. Like Holden himself, such censors sought to exempt the vulnerable from the vulgarity and corruption of the adult world. Nor does he swear with a four-letter word; instead he tries to efface it from walls. Such graffiti make him indignant. When Holden notices “Fuck you” inscribed on the wall of his sister Phoebe’s school, “I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it.” But when he sees that imperative phrase at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he makes the melancholy and mature announcement that such offenses to dignity cannot really be expunged: “You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any.” Censorship is not something that is only done to this text. Censorship is something that is also done—and desired—in this text.

How can the antagonism which The Catcher in the Rye provoked be explained? Here Steinle falters because she emphasizes the shadow of nuclear catastrophe. The specter of World War III has not only given shape to the nightmares of young and old alike but has presumably reinforced the desire to spare children from the dangers lurking outside. Controversy signified a “recognition of the powerlessness of American adults to provide a genuine sense of future and hopefulness for the adolescents in their charge,” she writes. The novel “is an indictment of adult apathy and complicity” with political paralysis and with nihilism. Holden himself typifies that problem, since his fantasy of seclusion in a cabin in the woods is scarcely a prescription for social activism: “I’d pretend I was one of those deafmutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody.” No kid would have been more eager to go bowling alone.

Not that Holden tunes out completely; after all, he calls himself “a pacifist.” He will grow up in an era when military conscription was more or less universal, but predicts that “it’d drive me crazy if I had to be in the Army. . . . I swear if there’s ever another war, they better just take me out and stick me in front of a firing squad.” Indeed the protagonist goes even further: “I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.” Little more than a decade later, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove would face nuclear terror by ending the story with Slim Pickens doing precisely what Holden vows he will step forward to do; and Salinger’s novel can be read as suggesting that history has veered out of control. A can-do people was suddenly confronted with the evidence of its own impotence.

But In Cold Fear remains speculative in offering this interpretation and can offer virtually no direct evidence of nuclear fears. Those who condemned The Catcher in the Rye rarely raised the horror of atomic catastrophe as pivotal to their objections to the novel. She concedes that only “a few participants” in the various local controversies “either directly specified or alluded to the threat of nuclear annihilation.” Neither the moral nor the literary disputes were ventilated in such terms. Instead the debates over The Catcher in the Rye were presented as a threat to conventional parental control and thus became a measure of the professional autonomy and authority of teachers. What stoked parental fears was probably not revealed in the rockets’ red glare, I believe, but can be located with ease in the text itself. Holden Caulfield has an attitude problem: he adopts a stance of alienation and non-conformity; he prefers truths to be self-evident rather than derived from adult authority; he admits that he is “probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw” (even if it’s only “in my mind”).

No wonder then that in the 1998 film set in a frozen version of the 1950’s, Pleasantville, The Catcher in the Rye is preceded only by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in stimulating the residents to awaken from their repression, and to discover how complicated and colorful the world might be. Later in the film, books are burned, and Salinger’s is presumably among them. But after the actual, historical 1950’s, silence was not in fact to be Holden’s fate. Among the characters who continue to live in American letters, and to spook the imagination of readers, he did not become a non-person. Because this protagonist also narrates his own story (minus “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”), he can convey his moods and opinions in a distinctive language and with an indelible voice, which is why Holden has outlasted those seeking to throttle him.


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