A few days ago, a man named Jerome David Salinger shuffled off his mortal coil and moved on to the next world, or whatever happens when a person dies. The world didn’t come to a stand-still, and everything continued as it always had. Except, the day it was announced that J.D. Salinger was no more, his book ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ sold way better than the days, weeks or months before. A surprisingly large number of persons had heard of Holden Caulfield even if they hadn’t read about him, and now that the author was in the news — posthumously — they couldn’t wait to read a book that, to this day, is often said to be the seminal ‘coming-of-age’ novel in the history of modern American literature.
Highly controversial in its day, thanks to the liberal sprinkling of four-lettered words throughout the text, ‘The Catcher…’ was the book to read at age fifteen, sixteen, or whenever it was that adolescence peaked. Not only was it popular with young readers, it received attention from the highest office in the United States government. The 1950s were the years of McCarthyism, and if one has read the book, it’s not too hard to figure out why it attracted frowns from the anti-communist brigade in Washington D.C. Perhaps it’s all the controversy that contributed to the initial popularity of the book. Take, for instance, D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 book ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, not published in the U.K. until 1960. Even then, the publishing company, Penguin, faced legal charges. The book in its original, uncensored version, had been banned in India till before 1964, but copies were openly sold on the footpaths of Mumbai (then Bombay). In the end, though, however effective controversy might be for getting people interested in a book, there is no way its popularity can be sustained unless it has that special something which commands readers’ loyalty by gaining their respect.
The book, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ gained this writer’s respect. Those whose adolescent years have been the mid-2000s would know what it was like, to be ‘not a child…not an adult…’ back then. The electronic media in India was beginning to come into its own. For the first time in the country, viewers could sit in their homes and watch two wars unfold before their very eyes, bullet by bullet, with no more than a few seconds’ delay. Then, suddenly, the wars ended just as they’d begun — at least they did on the television screens, when the news channels cut from a report about civilian casualties to news of stock prices rising (or falling), and followed this up with talk shows by the end of which almost everyone would be yelling. The best chefs in the country couldn’t come up with better recipes for confusion. In the midst of all this chaos, when television failed, we turned to a book. It talked of what life was like, five decades ago, in the post WWII age. The country might have been different, but the lives it threw into disarray — the emergence of a ‘Brave New World’ — that, we could relate to. Nationality is a mere technicality; the human experience is a shared one, after all. Sometimes we’re like Holden, wanting to ‘catch’ the innocence of youth and protect it; at other times, we’re the kids who play with wild abandon, hoping that there’s someone standing at the edge of the cliff, to catch us if we start to go over. That’s what the book is all about: human nature. For, it is human nature to hope, and as long as hope endures, so will Holden Caulfield, anti-hero, enfant terrible of every generation that reads of him.