A Gift to Our Imagination

January 31, 2010

Catcher in the Rye - Salingers Invaluable Gift To the American Imagination

Catcher in the Rye - Salingers Invaluable Gift To the American Imagination

“I don’t even know what I was running for – I guess I just felt like it”

~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 1

I was 16 when I first picked up Catcher in the Rye. It was winter, my junior year at single sex, college prep Catholic School, probably much like the one Holden Caulfield attends in the book. The book wasn’t assigned until Spring semester, but I couldn’t sleep one night so I picked it up and thought it would lull me to bed. Little did I realize that a couple hours later I had to force myself to put it down, only to find myself putting it in my backpack to read at school in the morning. The next day, I sat at the very back of all my classes, hid it just above my knees under the hem of my skirt and read as many lines as I could. I had it finished by the time I got home and was captivated. The beauty of Catcher in the Rye is that not only is it a page-turner to read, but after reading it the real fascination begins.

There’s a great article in Forbes lamenting Salinger’s death and it reminds us why the book was revolutionary in it’s time and still captures imaginations today:

In the 1950s, the life stage we call adolescence lasted a relatively short time. High schools prepared the majority of students not for college but for the responsibilities of adulthood. A “life adjustment” curriculum taught students to dress right, date right, engage in civic life and take on the trappings of maturity. Notably Catcher in the Rye called into question this entire program of social engineering, with Holden exploding the notion that adulthood was something to strive for. What was the rush?

Salinger revealed “social engineering” in all it’s humdrum and futility. The Forbes piece aptly describes Gen X’ers and beyond as  in no way rushing to grow up. On the contrary, we’ve developed an existence that lingers in adolescence, finding and defining our own value sets. We give ourselves room to grow at our pace, not limiting ourselves to “engineered” time frames. Holden struggled in a world that was unkind to that mindset,*SPOILER ALERT* and winds up in a mental asylum as a result. Spending too many years in school jumping from major to major to discover one’s passion, or spending vast time and money to become a medical doctor only to graduate and make music is exactly what we’re taught not to do. It was the height of being counter-productive in the 50’s but today is increasingly seen as acceptable, and perhaps even romantic.

Holden Caulfield’s passion was caring for children, and 1950’s America might have shunned him for finding work that would normally fall in a feminine domain. Society would censure him for not “developing to his potential”, which translates to society seeing zero ROI in occupations with relatively little pay after parents have paid huge sums for kids to attend the best private schools. Society might balk at Holden the high school counselor, or pre-school teacher. But today the idea of social engineering, engineering itself is balked at to a greater extent. It’s easier to accept a path of self-definition now than ever before. Societal engineering and impositions still exist, and are often the easier route, but Holden Caulfield would have faired much better in this decade, perhaps in a place like San Francisco than he did in the past century, upstate New York.

Salinger’s work allowed our generation the freedom to question confines of “social engineering”  and be less fearful of pursuing our passions. It’s an enormous contribution that no government or corporation could have given us. Such gifts only come from art.



  1. its very nice read. but good Americans like good Pakistanis are now again becoming apathetic to judicial, social and unjust engineering and related shenanigans. Good Governance is slipping (more rapidly in Pakistan) towards GOODS (S is not a typos!!) GOVERNANCE or GORE-MINT, as I call that.



  2. Zainab,
    I would really like to invite your thoughts on Howard Zinn, the other giant, in my opinion, who died recently and is probably getting somewhat overshadowed by J D Salinger’s death.
    I cannot begin to tell you how transformational an experience it was to read a people’s history of the US for me or for the people I recommended it to. It would be great to see a post from you on that.



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