Friday, March 6, 2009

Historical Background of "The Catcher in the Rye"

Holden Caulfield's America was a nation of contrasts. World War II was over, and the boys had come home, but to what? Financially, life had improved significantly for the average worker since the Great Depression of the 1930s, but inflation presented new problems.

The political scene generally moved toward conservatism near the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s (the time period of the novel), but there were noteworthy exceptions. The atomic bomb, which many had considered a blessing when it quickly ended the war with Japan, was increasingly seen as a curse. Culturally, the United States was both conservative and liberal but leaning increasingly to the right.

The economy had certainly improved since the 1930s. The New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (thirty-second President of the United States, serving from 1933–1945) combined with the enormous financial boost of World War II to pull the United States out of the nightmare of the Great Depression.

Between 1941 and 1945, the years of America's involvement in the war, average individual weekly earnings had increased from $24.20 to $44.39. Workers faced a full-time workweek of forty-eight hours, but that would soon be reduced to a forty-hour week, often with no loss of pay, following an example set by the federal government.

Women had contributed significantly to the war effort by filling jobs in industry as well as serving in the armed forces. Some chose to continue with professional careers, an important step in the emancipation of women in the twentieth century. Others chose to return to traditional roles as housewives, opening more jobs for the returning men.

This process took time, and the wait was difficult for many individuals. The strain was buffered by the GI Bill but exacerbated by inflation. The GI Bill of Rights provided educational and other financial opportunities for returning members of the armed forces.

Literally tens of thousands of service personnel, who otherwise would not have been able to afford it, attended college. A serious problem, however, was inflation. During the war, the emergency Office of Price Administration had kept costs in check. After its elimination, inflation ran rampant. In some areas, food prices doubled within a month. The cost of living rose by a third. Those on a fixed income, including many attending schools on the GI Bill, were especially strained.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden's family, and the families of the boys with whom Holden attends school, appear to have no financial concerns. Holden's family lives in an expensive apartment in an affluent section of New York City. Holden's father is a corporate attorney. Holden assures us that all a lawyer does is "make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot" (Chapter 22).

Although his profession is probably more difficult than what his son makes it out to be, Mr. Caulfield is doing very well financially. He can afford a live-in maid, Charlene, and his son seems to go from one private school to another with little concern for cost. Holden's perspective is that of the upper-middle class. In the first chapter of the novel, he notices that the Spencers, whom he is visiting, can't afford a maid and have to answer their door themselves — "They didn't have too much dough" — indicating Holden's socioeconomic background.

Politically, the United States was becoming increasingly conservative. In 1948, Harry S Truman, a Roosevelt liberal from Missouri, who never attended college and had gone through bankruptcy, defeated conservative Thomas Edmund Dewey, an attorney with degrees from the University of Michigan and Columbia University, for the office of President of the United States.

Although Truman had been Roosevelt's vice president and held the office since FDR's death in 1945, his victory shocked the experts. Four years later, Republican conservative General Dwight Eisenhower won easily, as he would again in 1956. Other factors affected these elections, but the shift toward conservatism was paramount.

In February of 1950, a first-term U.S. Senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy accused the Department of State of employing 205 known Communists. He later reduced the number to 57. Although the accusations were never proven, McCarthy had become a national figure and the most infamous leader of a witch-hunt that rivaled that of Salem in 1692.

In the early 1950s, as head of the Senate subcommittee on investigations, McCarthy expanded his search for Communist influence, which contributed to what historian William Manchester (author of The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of American, 1932–1972, published by Bantam Books) titled "the age of suspicion." Blacklists, banning the accused from employment, appeared across the country.

State legislatures demanded that college professors, a typically liberal group, for example, sign loyalty oaths pledging their allegiance to the United States and disavowing any association with Communism. The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) fired 157 professors who protested that such an oath was unconstitutional.

In the entertainment industry, another predominantly liberal group, some writers, directors, and actors were blacklisted for years, their careers ruined. Good reasons to be concerned about spies did exist in this time period, but too often the wrong people were accused.

This spirit of repression is the context in which The Catcher in the Rye appeared. When the novel has been banned from classrooms, it has been because school boards and administrators have objected to the language as well as the general atmosphere of subversion in the book. Officials at a high school in Nebraska (one example of many) feared that the old Pencey alum, who wants to see if his initials are still carved in a dormitory bathroom door (in Chapter 22), might encourage vandalism.

The Christian Science Monitor (July 19, 1951) concluded that the novel was "not fit for children to read" and that Holden Caulfield was "preposterous, profane, and pathetic beyond belief." Ironically, Holden himself is opposed to the strongest obscenity in the novel and the vandalism that produces it. As C.V. Xiong pointed out in a lecture at Creighton University (spring 1999), the novel remains near the top of the list of banned books in public libraries in America, especially in rural areas. Reasons cited continue to be language, subversive concepts, and parental disapproval.

When the Soviet Union set off its first nuclear explosion in 1949, it was clear that the cold war could turn hot and destroy civilization. A real fear permeated American culture. Even in remote areas, ordinary people built bomb shelters in their backyards. Schools took time to instruct students on the best way to react during a nuclear attack.

Although the intent was benevolent, the most likely result was fear and confusion on the part of impressionable young minds. This increased gap between adult values and childhood innocence may have affected Salinger and certainly affected his audience. Whatever Holden's politics might have been, many readers related to his resentment of the insensitive, cruel, and phony elements of life.

Culturally, society was moving toward conservatism but with important pockets of resistance. In 1949, the first nationally recognized, uniform suburban communities appeared, called Levittowns, after designer William J. Levitt. We can guess what Holden would say about them. Flying saucers were first reported that year (Holden may have found these more interesting). China became Red China in 1949.

Closer to home, Billy Graham, an American evangelist, began his first large-scale Christian crusade. Veterans of World War II had mixed feelings of disillusionment and hope, echoed by Salinger and embodied, however subconsciously, in Holden.

In contrast to the affluence and conformity of the time were the "beats." First noticed in the coffeehouses of Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco in the early 1950s and soon centered in poet and co-owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, the beats were the flip side of suburbia.

They advocated individuality, poetry, jazz music, Zen Buddhism, and such controversial lifestyle choices as free love and smoking pot. Some of the best known were Jack Kerouac, a merchant seaman during the war and author of the beat classic On the Road (1957); Allen Ginsberg, a former market research consultant and author of Howl (1956); former popcorn salesman turned poet, Kenneth Rexroth; and William S. Burroughs, outspoken drug addict and author of The Naked Lunch (published in Paris in 1959 and in the U. S. as Naked Lunch in 1962).

The term beat implies weary, defeated, and hip to the rhythms of poetry and jazz. Like Holden Caulfield, the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, the beats probably would prefer something other than Radio City Music Hall or Ernie's Nightclub. Several of the beats had been through psychotherapy, and Ginsberg famously wrote that he had seen the "best minds of [his] generation" destroyed by madness.

It could be argued that, after his release from the mental hospital, Holden might be just about ready to join this important movement. During this same period, in 1949, scientists, led by a bacteriologist named John Franklin Enders, developed a method of growing poliomyelitis viruses in a laboratory, leading to Jonas Salk's successful polio vaccine five years later.

That was followed by Albert Sabin's oral vaccine. Sometimes called "infantile paralysis," the disabling, often paralyzing disease hit children hardest. In 1952, there were 57,879 new cases of polio reported in the United States. With routine immunization, there would be only a few cases ten years later.

In Chapter 24 of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden recalls a speech student at Pencey Prep, a boy named Richard Kinsella, whose consideration of his polio-infected uncle was interesting to Holden but condemned as a "digression" by fellow students and the instructor. Readers in the early 1950s would understand the terror and destruction that polio produced.

New York City itself was a lighter, safer, less hostile place for Holden than it has been for some subsequent generations. Central Park was a gathering place for families. However, there is an undercurrent of fear, danger, and decadence, centered in New York City, that Holden seems both repelled by and attracted to.

The Catcher in the Rye appeals to us because of its universality, but it is important that it takes place mostly in Manhattan at the crossroads of the 1940s and 1950s. As Sanford Pinsker points out in The Catcher in the Rye: Innocence Under Pressure (published by Simon & Schuster), the novel is a "mixture of bright talk and brittle manners, religious quest and nervous breakdown, [which] captured not only the perennial confusions of adolescence, but also the spiritual discomforts of an entire age."

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