HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

J.D. Salinger: The influence of an author and his writings on 1950s America
© 2004, Juliana Stevenson

The end of World War II and the beginning of the 1950s saw a time of prosperity and success in mainstream America. Less than a decade after the United States allied with Great Britain and the Soviet Union, forming one of the most powerful forces in history to defeat the axis powers in the war, the U.S. was deeply entrenched in a nuclear arms race and "Cold War" with the Soviet Union. As a result, the country put on a collective fa‡ade of stability and strength to cover up many injustices that were taking place during the time. Americans, equipped for the first time in a long while with a good amount of money, flooded to the suburbs and replaced any sorrows they might have had with material products and consumerism -- creating an America of conformity and extravagance that Salinger would devote much of his writing to critiquing.

With the publication of Catcher in the Rye in the summer of 1951, America was introduced to Holden Caulfield, a character who would continue to remain in the American psyche for over half a century. Holden was the voice of this young generation who did not seem to have the same conformist attitudes or mainstream goals as their parents. Predictably, this critique of society and questioning of traditional American values was quickly met with an attempt to censor the message of dissent. Beginning in 1954 and continuing for decades, Catcher was criticized for its cynical tone, its "un-American" content, and its foul language ("237 goddams, 58 bastards, 31 Chrissakes, and 1 fart," according to one complaint" Steinle 3). But despite this controversy, and no doubt at least partially because of it, countless numbers of Americans read Salinger's first and only novel -- making it a topic of debate and discussion ever since.

In his essay, "You Must Change Your Life: Formative Responses to The Catcher in the Rye," Mark Silverberg explores the way American youth took to J.D. Salinger's young hero. Teenagers who were moved by The Catcher in the Rye not only felt they could relate to Holden, but felt that they could identify with him. In other words, teenagers in the 1950s were able to find a voice in Holden Caulfield; a voice that was speaking both to them and for them. Silverberg explains how this connection to the book's main character was felt in two ways. "Numerous teachers have agreed that the novel encapsulates what "every" young person has felt," he wrote. "They see him, not the ideal young man, but a young man in search of himself, in search of his place in the human scheme of things..." (Steed 13). Many young people in the 1950s felt that Holden was the spokesperson for their generation and that he was able to capture and express a universal experience and collective mindset of teenagers at the time. They use Holden as a gateway to connect themselves to other youth who they feel share these same frustrations and take comfort in the fact that this character has been able to verbalize their collective plight. These young people were in search of a shared voice that was accessible to the masses and they were able to find sense of unity in Holden.

While some people saw Holden as the messenger that so effectively conveyed the thoughts of their entire generation to the rest of society, others were drawn to Holden in a very different way. Silverberg explains that this group of people is able to identify with Holden in a much more private way, because they feel that they have shared something with the main character that nobody else has. "These readers feel that their experience and Holden's are special because they are unique. In this case, the anxiety and disaffection of youth is a rare understanding shared between Holden and the reader," Silverberg said. "Only he and I understand it -- while the rest of the phony slobs out there would never 'get' it" (Steed 14). This group of people feels that the experience that they share with Holden is one that is specific to them.

The specific experience Holden and his fans and followers are speaking about is a post-War culture for which they, the youth, feel disgust and disconnect. In an effort to maintain a fa‡ade of strength and perfection to promote democracy to the rest of the world, the American government and many of its citizens went to great lengths to project images of success and stability abroad and at home. The older generation in the country had tried to stand up to Communism by living out their Americanness through wealth and conformity. But underneath it all, many people, youth in particular, experienced an extreme dissatisfaction and emptiness. Rod Serling, one of the 1950s' most respected television playwrights, was very aware of this growing disillusionment among youth. "There was a postwar mystification of the young a gradual erosion of confidence in their elders, in the so-called truths, in the whole litany of moral codes... they just didn't believe them anymore," he said (Halberstam, 482). Whether they felt alone in their plight or whether they tried to validate their own thoughts by imagining they were part of a larger group of young people with a similar experience, Holden Caulfield's real, candid and uncensored testimony seemed to perfectly express the frustrations of this young generation in a conformist society that they "saw through."

In his article, "The Catcher in the Rye and All: Is the Age of Formative Books Over?" Sanford Pinsker recalls his experience as a young person during in the middle of the twentieth century and being drawn to the experience of Salinger's character. "Like Holden, I yearned for a world more attractive, and less mutable, than the one in which we live and are forced to compete...In those days Holden was my 'secret sharer.' ...To be sure, what Holden said in bald print I dared only whisper sotto voce." (Pinsker, 954, 956).

Holden's objection to the conformity he sees in the world around him is evident from the opening lines of the novel:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. (Catcher 1)

This passage grabs the reader's attention for several reasons. J.D. Salinger sets a "rebellious" tone for the entire piece by opening his novel with the protagonist making a crack on the writing style of one of the most respected authors of the twentieth century. Additionally, it calls into question the values of 1950s America and what people generally view to be important. In her book In Cold Fear: The Catcher in the Rye Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character, Pamela Hunt Steinle addresses the reasoning behind Salinger's opening. "The initial assumption is that the mid-twentieth-century reader want to know the family and position of a central character -- an assumption that is immediately challenged as irrelevant to the telling of the story itself and as contrary to middle-class expectations of personal and family privacy," (Steinle 21). Salinger is using Holden as a vehicle to express his discontent with American's new-found obsession with status and outward appearance in Cold War, 1950s America.

In a 1951 New York Herald Tribune review of Catcher, Virgilia Peterson wrote that although Holden engaged in behavior that might have been considered questionable or rebellious at the time, such as using profanity, lying, drinking, lusting over women, engaging in physical violence and performing poorly in school, that he ultimately was a decent, respectable person with pure intentions in life. "But these [misbehaviors] are merely the devils that try him externally," Peterson wrote. "Inside, his spirit is intact" (Lomazoff). Peterson's review itself seems to express sentiments of the adult mainstream culture. Her statement about "the devils that try him externally" seems to imply that Holden's rejection of social norms has less to do with his frustration and disapproval of the entire framework of American society, and more to do with being a good kid simply being slightly misguided within that conformist framework. Holden had been treated as a rebel and a failure for a good portion of his life, but he functions under the mindset that the problem lies with society and their "phony" expectations for him, not in himself. He is not motivated to change because that would involve participating in a culture he did not agree with. It is this same sentiment that spoke to a generation in the 1950s that understood their shortcomings and their desire to not be perfect, yet still believed they were championing a good cause by rebelling against, or at least rejecting, what they viewed to be the detrimental conformist standards of their parents. This quickly becomes a case of the good us vs. the bad them.

Salinger further explains the plight of Holden and the "enlightened" few who understand the phoniness of American culture by showing how their desire to dismantle and protest mainstream conformity is hindered by mainstream conformists desires to squander this rebellion. The specific instance in the book that most directly represents this situation is when Holden recalls an incident with a schoolmate named James Castle.

There was this one boy at Elkton Hills, name James Castle, that wouldn't take back something he said about this very conceited boy, Phil Stabile...So Stabile, with about six other dirty bastards, went down to James Castle's room and went in and locked the goddam door and tried to make him take back what he said, but he wouldn't do it. So they started in on him. I won't even tell you what they did to him -- it's too repulsive -- but he still wouldn't take it back, old James Castle...Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window. (Catcher 170)

James Castle, who, likely not coincidentally, shares the same initials as Jesus Christ, was tortured and abused for speaking out against mainstream society. To James, taking his (true) statement back about Phil Stabile being conceited would be selling out to the mainstream culture and letting them win. James feels so overwhelmed in his responsibility to stand up to this pressure to conform by himself that he essentially makes a sacrifice out of his life while promoting his cause.

Holden feels a similar obligation and desire to protect the youth of America from the inevitable corruption of conformist America. He is no doubt haunted by intense emotions and a sense of desperation to save the future of society, when he feels the world is against him and he is alone in this challenge. This is evident in the scene from which the novel draws its title.

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around -- nobody big, I mean -- except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff -- I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. (Catcher 173)

The fact that Holden is the only one in this field that is "big" is significant because essentially, all the responsibility to save these kids falls solely upon him. He is the only one in the position to protect these children, and that is an extremely overwhelming job for a youth who simply wants to do what he feels is innately right in rejecting the spurious materialism of the rest of the culture. Additionally, others have compared this passage to a direct comment on politics of the time and the arms race. Now that the United States had gained nuclear power, there was a fear by some that those in power would be "running and they don't look where they're going" while they're "playing some game in this big field of rye and all." There was a concern that with the cold war essentially dominating almost every aspect of life in America during this time, that the United States could get carried away when they were not really sure what they were doing in the first place. Holden seems to be the only voice of reason through all of this -- the only one who understands the truth behind the false image of stability being conveyed to the world. Holden longs to find someone who he can share this burden with.

Holden is not a misanthrope as much as he is a confused outsider, desperate for a human connection. Throughout the novel, he wanders the streets of New York, trying to meet people in bars or dealing with the urge to call basically anyone he can think of. Holden's cynical outlook and failure to communicate parallels the experience of many young people in the 1950s of struggling to reject the conformist ideals of society while simultaneously not wanting to be alone. Charles Kegel's article, "Incommunicability in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye" sums up this phenomenon felt by Holden. "His problem is one of communication: as a teenager, he simply cannot get through to the adult world which surrounds him; as a sensitive teenager, he cannot even get though to others of his own age," (Kegel 55). Holden's high hopes and continual disappointment with the world around him lead to an extreme sense of alienation. He is so overwhelmed by his inability to make a connection or relate to anyone he views to be worthwhile, that he becomes desperately conflicted between being painfully (and likely unrewardingly) involved in society by trying to save and protect people from what he views to be a social corruption and deterioration, and just giving up completely and withdrawing into himself. His frustration is expressed in the novel when he entertains the idea of this total withdrawal.

I thought what I'd do was, I'd pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn't have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something, they'd have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They'd get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I'd be through with having conversations for the rest of my life. Everybody'd think I was just a poor deaf-mute bastard and they'd leave me alone. (Catcher 198-199)

Holden is so disgusted with the "phoniness" that he sees around him that he fantasizes about not having to deal with it ever again. He seems exhausted by his quest to find a good conversation and a good human connection in the midst of such falseness, that he is excited by the idea of never having another conversation for the rest of his life. This same theme of alienation and a failure to connect is evident in the real life youth culture of the 1950s. Teenagers were faced with the task of separating themselves from the conformist values of their parents while trying to satisfy the normal teenage desire to belong and to be accepted somewhere.

Another pertinent aspect of 1950s culture that is addressed in Salinger's work is war and its impact on people, a subject that the author had experienced first hand. Salinger himself grew up with a fond view of the military. He attended Valley Forge Military Academy, which he supposedly based much of Holden's school, Pencey, on. Although Holden did not think of Pencey very favorably, friends of Salinger's say that as a young man, J.D. seemed generally happy with his experience at Valley Forge (Alexander 42-43). During the early 1940s, like many Americans at the time, Salinger seemed to be swept up by extreme support of the war effort. He wrote several stories including "Personal Notes on an Infantryman" and "The Hang of It" that dealt in an innocent and noble tone with the subject of war. Salinger seemed to have a fascination with the heroic and romantic side of war, which came out in these early stories.

In 1941, at twenty-two years of age, Salinger attempted to join the army, but was turned down by military doctors because of a minor heart condition. Despite his recent successes, including being published in several magazines including Esquire and The New Yorker, "his inability to join the Army made him feel unnecessary" (Alexander 79). When the United States finally entered World War II, the government redefined classifications, which enabled Salinger to be accepted into the Army in the following year. He was being trained in Devon, England to do counterintelligence operations in Europe. While in England, Salinger enjoyed listening to the choir at the local Methodist church, an experience that resurfaces in Salinger's later story, For Esme With Love and Squalor. During the Allied forces' expansive invasion of Europe, Salinger and the rest of his Fourth Infantry Division fought in ground combat in several of the war's intense battles, including the battle in the Hurtgen Forest. During their eleven months of combat in Europe, his division suffered over two thousand casualties a month. During this time, Salinger was faced with gory casualties, extensive destruction and the threat of losing his own life.

Toward the end of his time in Europe, Salinger continued to write and publish stories. "A Boy in France," which was published in March of 1945, represented a dramatic shift in the way Salinger addressed war in his fiction. "The cruel fighting Salinger had seen so much of had obviously changed the way he thought and wrote about war and the military. His romantic view of the two had been destroyed by the abject reality of what he had seen -- death, pain, destruction" (Alexander 105). When Salinger's unit was finished in Europe, he was checked himself into an Army General hospital where he was diagnosed as having a minor nervous breakdown during a medical examination. He was having a lot of trouble functioning in ordinary life after experiencing these emotionally taxing events. From that point on, many critics, friends, and readers have speculated that much of Salinger's writing has been, at least in some part, autobiographical.

Several of Salinger's stories that appeared in The New Yorker and Nine Stories, a compilation of some of Salinger's greatest work published in 1953, deal with many aspects of war that were very relevant to much of the country during the 1950s. A Perfect Day for Bananafish and For Esme with Love and Squalor deal address the issues, emotions and concerns associated with having fought in a war, while Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut depicts how a woman is affected by the loss of a loved one during battle.

In A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Salinger introduces readers to Seymour Glass, the eldest member of the family of geniuses that, along with Holden Caulfied, became his signature characters. The story takes place at a beach resort where Seymour and his wife, Muriel have traveled. The story opens on a phone conversation that Muriel is having with her mother in which the reader learns a lot about Seymour. Muriel's mother is strongly cautioning her daughter about Seymour's reckless and erratic behavior since he has returned from the war. Throughout the conversation Muriel is nonchalantly painting her toenails. Muriel's mother says that she has consulted a doctor friend of her husbands who says that Seymour should have never been released from the Army hospital and may lose complete control any second. Muriel and her family represent mainstream society. They have not fought in the war themselves and are quick to put any memory of it behind them in order to more fully indulge in the opulence of the 1950s. The only reason the war is even mentioned is because they are condemning Seymour's reaction after returning from combat. They are unable to understand his difficulty readjusting to life after the war. What they seem to be unsympathetic towards, and what Salinger is making a point of, is that it is impossible for Seymour to see the world in the same way after witnessing such horrible atrocities during combat. The extravagant world he returns to seems to be trivial. Salinger plays this up by emphasizing Muriel's family's focus on materialism -- she is painting her toenails, her mother worries who will pay for their new car that Seymour damaged, and their conversation about Seymour's health is interrupted by talk of sunburns and bronzer.

This entire story is especially significant when the reader considers the similarities between Seymour's war experience and Salinger's own. The fact that much of the sentiment expressed in this story are autobiographical makes the story much more real and captures an actual dynamic that was occurring in America during the 1950s between those who physically experienced war and those who participated in the domestic support of the war effort. When the action finally shifts to Seymour, we find him on the beach with a young girl. What is captivating about this scene is the naivet‚ and the innocence that Sybil possesses and its calming affect of Seymour. He finds Sybil's youth and curious, innocent outlook on the world refreshing in comparison to his shallow, materialistic peers. With the exception of Sybil, Seymour is surrounded by the same kind of phoniness that Holden identified in Catcher in the Rye. He also struggles with the same dilemma of trying to protect Sybil from the shallow, conformist world the way Holden dreams of protecting the children in the rye field, but ultimately the task seems too overwhelming and the cause too hopeless for Seymour. He returns to his hotel room, looks at his wife sleeping on the bed next to his and shoots himself through the right temple. This is reminiscent of the story of James Castle, who also felt so defeated and beaten down by his battle with conformity and the emptiness of society that he takes his own life. Obviously, Salinger felt compelled to write about this battle which he felt was present in real life in the 1950s. In this way, he was documenting an actual phenomenon that was otherwise easily silenced by the outward appearance of success and happiness in post war America.

This similar theme of innocence in a corrupt world can be found in For Esme With Love and Squalor. Also dealing with the topic of war, while Bananafish has a tragic result, innocence and sincerity prevail in Salinger's tale of a Sergeant's relationship with a young girl in Europe during the war. Salinger depicts the frankness and honesty of young Esme when she meets the narrator in a small caf‚ in Devon, England, the place where Salinger himself was stationed during his time in the army. Esme approaches the narrator because she says he looks lonely and immediately, a connection is made, unlike the never-ending struggle to communicate that Holden faces in Catcher in the Rye. Unlike Salinger's critique and portrayal of materialistic, shallow, mainstream America at the time, Esme is direct and honest, which greatly appeals to the narrator, and by extension, to Salinger and those he speaks for in his writing. Esme asks the narrator to write her a story sometime, to which the narrator agrees. The two begin a correspondence and the narrator writes a story for Esme, which is intentionally not subtle in its autobiographical nature. In the story, the war has taken its toll on the narrator -- he is shaky and distant, and mentally unable to return to normal life after the war. As in Bananafish, there is talk of him being psychologically diagnosed as crazy by mainstream doctors who do not understand his struggle or what he has been through. He is a man who has not returned from the war "with all his faculties intact." But the story ends on a hopeful note when his faith in life and humanity is finally restored by his correspondence with 13 year old Esme, who ultimately saves his life.

The other one of Salinger's Nine Stories mentioned before in reference to its coverage of the impact of war on 1950s culture is Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut. This story is unique because it covers the effect of the war on the women who were left behind by the men who went to fight. It also provides a glimpse into the extravagant lifestyle which people strived for during the mid-century. Uncle Wiggily is the story of two former college roommates who have since grown up to have the quintessential successful suburban lives -- the kind of lives they dreamed of having in college. From the outside, Eloise especially is painted as having an enviable existence for the 1950s with a nice house right outside of New York City, a husband, a daughter, a maid and all the material belongings she might desire. But Salinger allows his readers an insider's glimpse into the life of this woman, whose private personal life has been destroyed by the loss of her one true love to the war. Additionally, it is revealed that Walt, her lover and Seymour Glass's younger brother, was killed in the war for no real reason other than a stove blew up on him when he was helping to package it while his unit was in Germany. This is a significant choice of detail for Salinger to include because it not only highlights the tragic irony of life, but also represents one of the pointless deaths that occurred during the war. Eloise later married another man who guaranteed her financial stability and the suburban dream, but her life is really empty. When she tried to tell her current husband about Walt, all he could ask was what rank in the army he was -- a detail which Salinger would consider to be "David Copperfield crap" and indicative of the kind of trivial stuff that was important to mainstream America during the 50s. In the end of the story, after an entire afternoon of drowning their sorrows in numerous cocktails, Eloise breaks down and wonders how her life has turned into such a mess. Uncle Wiggily provides a harsh portrayal of suburban American life and a strong critique of the tragedies that the war caused for many families.

During a time where much of the literature and culture was promoting traditional American values, Salinger was committed to writing about the real issues in America that he felt were covered up by a society consumed with image and material goals. His sometimes unconventional subject matter made him a threat for some and a much needed voice for others. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, the rebellion of youth began to gradually be more spoken about and increasingly organized, but much of this later identification of a collective youth experience and rebellion can be attributed to Salinger's desire to address it in his writing in a way that he felt was honest and necessary.


Alexander, Paul. Salinger: A Biography. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999.

Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.

Kegel, Charles H. "Incommunicability in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye." Western Humanities Review, XI (Spring 1957), 188-190. (Reprinted in Studies in J.D. Salinger by Marvin Laser and Norman Fruman).

Lomanzoff, Eric. "The Praises and Criticisms of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye" (1996) www.levity.com/corduroy/salinger1.htm

Pinsker, Sanford. "The Catcher in the Rye and All: Is the Age of Formative Books Over?" The Georgia Review 50: 4 (1986): 953-967.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

Salinger, J.D. Nine Stories. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1953.

Steed, J.P. The Catcher in the Rye: New Essays. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2002.

Steinle, Pamela Hunt. In Cold Fear: The Catcher in the Rye Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000.

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