The Catcher in the Rye, the 1951 coming-of-age novel by J.D. Salinger, is one of the best known novels about private school. The famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield, fails out of an elite boarding school called Pencey in Pennsylvania and makes his way to New York City, where he connects with girls from his past and fights a war against what he calls the “phoniness” of adult life.
Immediately after its publication, the book met with critical and popular success and went on to inspire almost cult-like devotion. As a result, its author, J.D. Salinger, went into isolation in a rural New Hampshire town from which he did not remove himself and where he later died in 2010. The book still sells approximately 250,000 copies a year, and it has sold some 65 million copies since its publication date. While it is still commonly read in schools, it is still a controversial book and has been among the most banned books in schools because of its profanity. After writing Catcher, Salinger completed some stories and novellas but largely chose to write for himself and maintain a secret life.
Holden Caulfield’s World
Some of Holden’s travails, in which he wages a cynical battle against the necessity of conformity in the adult world, are based on Salinger’s life. Born in New York City, Salinger attended the McBurney School, a YMCA-affiliated private school on the West Side of Manhattan that no longer exists. The school had many future greats pass through its doors, including actor Henry Winkler of Happy Days fame and journalist Ted Koppel. Salinger refers to McBurney obliquely in Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield leaves his fictitious Pennsylvania private school, Pencey Prep, after a number of fiascos, including leaving the fencing team’s foils on the subway en route to a match at McBurney. At McBurney, J.D. Salinger actually managed the fencing team, wrote for the school yearbook, and tried his hand at acting, though his father was adamantly opposed to his son’s becoming an actor.
Pencey Prep, the school that expels Holden Caulfield, may be based in part on Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania, the high school from which J.D. Salinger graduated in 1936. At Valley Forge, Salinger served as literary editor of the yearbook and started writing stories under his covers at night.
Like Holden, Salinger had a difficult transition to adult life. After dropping out of New York University, he worked for a time in Vienna, Austria, leaving when it was annexed by Nazi Germany. He then attended, and dropped out of, Ursinus, before attending a writing class at Columbia University taught by Will Burnett, the famous editor of Story magazine. Burnett recognized Salinger’s considerable literary talent and published one of his stories, starting Salinger on the road to literary success.
Salinger began working on Catcher in the Rye in an early form in the 1940s, and a story featuring Holden Caulfield was accepted by the New Yorker in December of 1941, but the story was put on hold after the attacks on Pearl Harbor that month and was not published until 1946. In the intervening years, Salinger saw serious combat duty on D-Day and was among the first Americans to enter a liberated concentration camp.
After the publication of Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger shunned fame and became a recluse, writing little for public consumption and giving very few interviews (and then, after some years, did not give interviews at all). He also turned down all opportunities to turn his iconic book into a movie, but the world of post-war private schools lives on in the pages of his classic book.