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.