Controversies and Censorship
Murders and Catcher
"That's a deer shooting hat."
When discussing Catcher, inevitably murder comes into the conversation. Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon December 8, 1980. Salinger includes a chapter on assassinations and Catcher. Chapman is quoted as saying, “I left the hotel room, bought a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, signed it to Holden Caulfield from Holden Caulfield, and wrote underneath that “This is my statement,” underlining the word “this,” the emphasis on the word this. I had planned not to say anything after the shooting,” (Shields).
Chapman also said, "I'm sure the large part of me is Holden Caulfield who is the main person in the book. The small part of me must be the Devil," (Shields). Before sentencing, the judge gave Chapman an opportunity to speak to the court. He proceeded to recite a passage from Catcher. "Chapman took from Holden the opposite of freedom. He identified so extremely that the identification became self-sustaining, because it gave him a self that he didn't possess before. He had to do what Salinger didn't do and what Holden himself didn't do: go with it fully. Catcher in the Rye is not meant to be a dangerous book. It's meant to be a curative book," (Shields).
Chapman is not the only person who has had Catcher in his possession before murdering or attempting to murder a high profile personality. A copy of Catcher was found in John Hinckley, Jr.'s hotel room after he attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Robert John Bardo murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989; a copy of Catcher was found in his apartment. Rumors abound that a copy was found in Lee Harvey Oswald's house.
Is there something about Catcher that drives people to murder? Searching online leads to conspiracy theories involving the government and mind control, (obviously). J. Reid Meloy doesn't think Catcher is an instrument of evil (or government coverups). He says in Salinger, “For Chapman, The Catcher in the Rye became the instrument of the murder he would carry out. The Catcher in the Rye is a sweet book. Holden’s fantasy is to save those children. It’s not a dark fantasy; it’s not a killing fantasy. The perversion in cases [like Chapman’s] is that you pull out passages to use to give you a rationale to carry out murder. It’s important to recognize that with any narrative, if you are intent on homicide you can extract from pages the rationale that allows you to go kill,” (Shields).
“The controversy began when a high school teacher in Oklahoma was fired for assigning the novel in 1960. The teacher was later reinstated. During the 1960s through 1980s, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States. At the same time, it was also commonly taught in public high schools. The book was the tenth most frequently challenged book of the 1990s according to the American Library Association,” (Lamb)
The 1960s was a tough time for Catcher. While organizations such as the American Library Association tried to fight the protests and censorship, there were many who considered the book smut. Oklahoma City wholesalers were harassed by some of these protesters. "Supporters for banning this and a number of other books launched a campaign that included using a “smutmobile.” They stopped at bookstores and newsstands all over the city in a vividly marked van with a loudspeaker system. If the business sold the offensive material, the news was broadcast,” (Pinsker).
Salinger knew about the challenges to his book and disagreed. “I’m aware,” Salinger had written in a statement that the publisher omitted from the book’s jacket, “that a number of my friends will be saddened and shocked, or shock-saddened, over some of the chapters of The Catcher in the Rye. Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all of my best friends are children. It’s almost unbearable to me to realize that my book will be kept on a shelf out of their reach,” (Shields).
Oftentimes the language is what people point toward as vulgar and inappropriate for young people. "On the contrary, Holden's restraints help to characterize him as a sensitive youth who avoids the most strongly forbidden terms, and who never uses vulgarity in a self-conscious or phony way to help him be 'one of the boys.' Fuck, for example, is never used as a part of Holden's speech. The word appears in the novel four times, but only when Holden disapprovingly discusses its wide appearance on walls," (Costello).
As seen in the word cluster, goddam appears numerous times within the novel. Costello argues that the usage is not meant to be offensive, he uses the word for description. "Goddam is Holden's favorite adjective. This word is used with no relationship to its original meaning, or to Holden's attitude toward the word to which it is attached. It simply expresses an emotional feeling toward the object: either favorable, as in 'goddam hunting cap'; or unfavorable, as in 'ya goddam moron'; or indifferent, as in 'coming in the goddam windows.' Damm is used interchangeably with goddam; no differentiation in its meaning is detectable,” (Costello).
Frangedis believes that acknowledging the controversy and the often challenged status is important when teaching the book. She also states that walking students through some of the more difficult sections of Catcher can help them better understand. "Moreover, the teacher must confront each controversial matter as it arises, leading students through a tactful, sensitive analysis of Holden's unorthodox views and behaviors. In doing so, the teacher should strive towards establishing two crucial points: first, that Holden's feelings and actions are those of a very troubled person who deserves our sympathy more often than our praise; second, a close look at Holden does, nonetheless, reveal that he possesses very strong moral, compassionate instincts. Indeed, Holden is a good but confused person. In leading students towards these insights, the teacher may not only unveil significant misconceptions about Catcher but hopefully also teach students to approach all literary works with an open mind and to be wary of those who are too quick to censor,” (Frangedis).
The Catcher in the Rye is still deemed controversial. Catcher is number 19 on the list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009.
"Those who would criticize the novel for “undermining family values” or “encouraging rebellion” are confusing cause and effect; The Catcher in the Rye is a reflection of teenage disillusionment, not a causer of it. Holden’s drug use, swearing, and desire to run away are all symptoms of a larger problem, not ends in themselves; while it is easy to criticize Holden’s behavior as “rebellious” or “anti-social,” it is far more difficult to acknowledge that his disillusionment has a real basis. Holden remains popular with readers because they identify with him not because they want to be like him," (Graeme).