Banned Books— The Catcher in the Rye

            Since at least 387 B.C. censors have been trying to ban books that contain nontraditional or unpopular viewpoints.  Books are banned because of the whole book in general or sometimes even for a single word or because the cover seems to suggest an offensive subject matter.  Censors not only try to ban “dirty books” but they try to ban classics as well.  Many classic writers such as William Shakespeare and Mark Twain have had their work attacked by censors as well as contemporary writers such as Annie Dillard and Alice Walker.  Even books like dictionaries, travel guides, and Bibles have been banned (“If You Think We We’re Free”).  Many people feel that J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher In The Rye is dangerous because it contains vulgarity, violence, and sexual content (Chandler).  Although The Catcher in the Rye was put on the banned book list shortly after its first publication in 1951, it is a fascinating and enlightening classic that everyone should have the opportunity to read.

            Holden Caulfield, the main character and narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, is a teenager growing up in the 1950’s in New York.  He has been expelled from school once again for poor achievement.  In order to deal with his failure, Holden decides to leave school a few days before the end of the term and escapes to New York before returning to his home for the punishment.  Written entirely in first person, the book describes Holden’s experiences and thoughts over the few days he takes for himself.  During these few days Holden describes a nervous breakdown he experiences with symptoms of unexplained depression, impulsive spending, and unpredictable behavior (Banks).

            Although it is thought that high school students are mature enough to handle books with adult situations such as The Catcher in the Rye, people continue to ban or try to ban them.  In 1960, a teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma was fired for assigning the book to an eleventh grade English class.  In Morris, Manitoba, the book was removed from the school libraries for “excess vulgar language, sexual scenes, things concerning moral issues, excessive violence, and anything dealing with the occult” (Bookczuk).  The book was banned in 1989 from classrooms in Boron High School in California for profanity.  It was challenged in 1993 as a required reading at Corona-Norco Unified School District in California because it is “centered around negative activity” (Bookczuk).  In 2000 the book was banned at the Windsor Forest High School in Savannah, Georgia because a parent complained about the sex, violence, and profanity in the book.  The Catcher in the Rye was also banned from a Dorchester District Two school board member in Summerville, South Carolina because it “is a filthy, filthy book” (Bookczuk).

            The most recent attempt to ban The Catcher in the Rye occurred in early October, 2004.  One parent, Cydney Schuch, from Bethel Park school showed up at a school board meeting with a petition of eighty signatures to protest the novel which was assigned to high school students.  Schuch wanted the book to be replaced with a book off of the recommended reading list by universities and colleges.  The day after her complaint, the district spokeswoman Vicki Flotta said that “any district parent has the right to say their child should no read a particular book,” however she said that she is “not sure a parent has the right to limit what everyone else reads” (Lowe).  Schuch argued that:

The book is filled with profanity and obscenity.  It shouldn’t be on campus, much less discussed on campus.  We want students to use appropriate language.  So why should they study inappropriate language? (Lowe)

She also said that she would prefer that “students read about a lifestyle that exemplified better morals and values” (Lowe).

            Another incident that gave this book a bad reputation was John Lennon’s assassination.  Lennon was asked to sign a copy of The Catcher in the Rye the morning by his murderer the morning of his assassination.  Police found the copy of the novel in Chapman’s pocket after being found and accused of the murder.  The book contains no evidence that it could possibly have had anything to do with leading Chapman to murder John Lennon, however, as a result that it was The Catcher in the Rye, a book describing a nervous breakdown, media thought deeply about the possible connections, giving the book yet another reason for people to arguer to ban the book (Banks).

There have been many complaints made against The Catcher in the Rye.  Many people feel that the book contains inappropriate offensive language, sexual content, occultism, and violence (“Banned Books Project”).  Vulgarity is one complaint The Catcher in the Rye gets over and over again.  Holden swears steadily throughout the book.  The bad language is not the most vulgar consisting of “damn”, “hell”, “crap”, and “ass”, and Holden curses so self-consciously and consistently that the words lose a lot of their vulgar meaning.  The most reoccurring curse words are “goddam” occurring over eighty nine times, “hell” occurring over sixty three times, and “damn” occurring over thirty nine times.  Today, most of the cursing in the book would not even be considered PG-13 if it were put in a movie.  The word “fuck” is seen three or four times at the end of the book, however, Holden is as shocked as the reader by the word and in the last few pages of the book is rubbing the word off or walls in various places wherever he finds it (Chandler).

            Too much vulgarity seems like a rather ridiculous excuse to ban a book.  Swearing is not something new; on the contrary, cursing can be traced back more than five centuries.  What has changed, however, is society’s tolerance of it, most noticeably in the last twenty years.  In March and April of 1999, researchers went to Portsmouth High School to research the amount of vulgarity used among students while walking around campus.  When monitoring the use of foul language in one lunch period, the researchers recorded an average of twenty-nine curse words in the twenty-eight minute lunchtime, just in the section of the school the observers were monitoring (Jacques).  Researchers then administered a survey to teachers and students based on a one to five scale; one being never and five being all the time.  One survey question was, “How often do you hear swearing in the foyer?” (Jacques).  The survey results showed that the average of hearing cursing in the foyer was 4.1 (Students Study).  Another question asked was “How often do you swear?”  (Jacques).  Here the results showed that the average amount of swearing among students was 3.1 and the average among teachers was 1.6 (Jacques).  For the most part, swearing occurred in casual conversation and was in no way related to violent behavior or fighting (Jacques).  So, why is it that students should not be able to read a book containing curse words in it, when teenagers today use swearing in their day to day conversations?

            Occultism and violence are also charges against The Catcher in the Rye.  However, it is very difficult to understand where the occultism charge comes from.  “The only scene that even leans toward occultism is the scene where Holden speculates on whether Judas went to hell after betraying Jesus” (Chandler).  Holden has a very rough time throughout the novel.  He gets punched by a boy at school, gets in a fight with his roommate and gets a bloody nose because of it, and has several violent fantasies.  Although there are several instances of violence in the novel, it is “barely at the level of a Saturday morning cartoon” (Chandler)

            Sexual content is one of the strongest charges against The Catcher in the Rye and there are several instances of it.  Holden lusts over women every chance he gets, he witnesses provocative behavior through his hotel window, he believes that his friend Jane was raped as a child, and he believes that Mr. Antolini, one of his old professors, made a sexual pass at him.  Although there are several clear instances of sexual content throughout the book, Holden is a model of virtue remaining innocent from beginning to end.  Many people feel that “by high school, readers should be able to read these non-graphic passages without harm” (Chandler).

            Containing sexual content is yet another absurd argument against The Catcher in the Rye.  Most adolescents begin having intercourse in their mid to late teens.  Fifty six percent of females and seventy three percent of males today have had intercourse by the time they turned eighteen (“Sex and America’s Teenagers”).  Only one in five teens does not have sex during their teenage years (“Sex and America’s Teenagers”).  If teenagers feel they are mature enough to partake in sexual activities, shouldn’t that make them mature enough to read about them as well?

            On a more positive note, many people do enjoy to work of J. D. Salinger and believe his work is a wonder book for students to read.  Chicago Tribune reviewer Paul Engle commented that the story was “emotional without being sentimental, dramatic without being melodramatic, and honest without simply being obscene” (3).  He also said that “the authenticity of Holden’s character, the idea that his voice was typical of a teenager, never childish or written down to that age level” (Lomazoff).  He also said that “the effort has been made to make the text, told by the boy himself, as accurate and yet as imaginative as possible.  In this, it largely succeeds” (3).  In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger speaks in the language of a teenager.  “He validates their feelings of awkwardness and mistrust of adults.  He tells the eternal truths of the teenagers” (Chandler).

            Hundreds of books are being banned every year in libraries and schools all over the world.  In the United States, censorship incidents have been documented in every state.  Some books may be banned for the whole novel in general, and some books are banned for just one word or even their book cover (“If You Think We’re Free”).  The Catcher in the Rye has been challenged several times for its “excessive vulgar language, sexual scenes, and things concerning moral issues” (Sova).  Although it is expected that by the time students reach high school they should be able to handle books containing adult content, people continue to ban novels the feel are inappropriate.