Born in New York in 1919, Jerome David Salinger dropped out of several schools before enrolling in a writing class at Columbia University. He published several short pieces and served in World War II before publishing his first novel in 1951. The Catcher in the Rye was an immediate bestseller for its iconoclastic hero and forthright use of profanity. Following this success, Salinger retreated to his Cornish, New Hampshire home where he grew increasingly private, eventually erecting a wall around his property and publishing just three more books: “Nine Stories,” “Franny and Zooey,” “Raise High the Roof Beam, and “Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.” Salinger was married twice and had two children. He died of natural causes on January 27, 2010, in New Hampshire at the age of 91.
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J. D. Salinger’s first novel is full of children. The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield.
Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it.
There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep.
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1. What do we know of the time period of this novel?
2. How do you think Holden is being perceived in the eyes of the other boys? .
3. What would you do if you were in Holden’s situation? Would you go home? Would you have survived in busy New York City in the middle of a harsh winter?
4. What does Phoebe mean for Holden? Why do you think Holden likes her so much? What kind of relationship do you think they share?
5. What do you think about Holden’s personality? Do teens these days share the same negativity?
6. What do you think is the overall theme of the story? What made this book become the American Classic that it is today? What is the message behind this novel?
7. How much can you trust Holden’s description of his wandering in New York? Do you think his descriptions are accurate or do you think the actual events are misleaded by his exaggerations and negative world view?
8. How has (or hasn’t) Holden changed throughout the novel? Has this wandering through New York changed his personality and character?
The discussion of this book began with a series of blank faces. The first comment was a question. “Why did we read this?” This was followed by an, “oh, I never read it and…” After that several in the group said they had read the book earlier, in the 50s. It was published in 1946, the first novel by J. D. Salinger who himself was a unique story. They liked it the first time and expected the same or even more now. This didn’t happen.
As with many of the books the club has read over the past year and a half many, and in this case nearly all of us, had already read the book. Most did this in high school or college more than fifty years ago. Different from nearly all our “re-reads”, this book was a disappointment. This second reading offered nothing new.
A question asked by several women was, “Did kids really talk like that?” They were referring to the occasional cuss words including, but not expressly, what Holden wanted to wipe off the walls. The two men in the group said, “yes, but it was more of an attitude and reflex than anything thought out.”
The hero of this book was telling his story while an inpatient at a hospital dealing with emotional and mental problems. It was probably in California where his older brother worked as a writer for the movies. If you haven’t read the book, it may be worth to read just to say you did. If you have read it already, probably many years ago, just savor the memory.
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