In retrospect, it might be easy to assume that The Catcher in the Rye was an immediate smash hit, critically and commercially, when it was published by Little, Brown and Company on July 16, 1951. In fact, the reviews were mixed. Although the book sold well, it was not an overwhelming sensation and never reached number one on the best-seller lists. The unusual thing about Salinger's first novel is its staying power.
Many of the novel's early reviews were favorable. On July 14, 1951, the Saturday Review praised the work as "remarkable" and "absorbing." Given Salinger's affiliation with the New Yorker magazine, we might expect extensive attention from that publication, and such was the case; S. N. Behrman wrote an unusually long and strong review (August 11, 1951), stressing the personal attraction of Phoebe and Holden as characters. The Book-of-the-Month Club selected the novel as a summer alternate, assuring significant sales and widespread attention. In the Book-of-the-Month Club News (July 1951), its large membership received a very positive review by the respected literary critic Clifton Fadiman, including one of the most widely quoted early comments on Holden Caulfield: "[T]hat rare miracle of fiction has again come to pass: a human being has been created out of ink, paper, and the imagination."
Other critics hedged their bets. An unsigned review in the July 15, 1951, Booklist found the work "imaginative" but warned of "coarse language." Writing for the Library Journal (July 1951), Harold L. Roth "highly recommended" the novel but warned that it "may be a shock to many parents" and should be thought of as strictly adult reading. The reviewer for the Nation (September 1, 1951) liked parts of the story but generally thought it was "predictable and boring." Anne L. Goodman of the New Republic (July 16, 1951) rated the final (carrousel) scene "as good as anything that Salinger has written" but concluded that "the book as a whole is disappointing"; there was just too much of Holden in the book for her. In the August 1951 Atlantic Monthly, Harvey Breit considered the work as a "summer novel" and found it to be a "near miss" in effectiveness. He was, however, one of the first to compare The Catcher in the Rye to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an insight whose value has held up over time. In the July 15, 1951, New York Times, James Stern chose an approach that, unfortunately, was popular nationwide. Attempting to review the novel in the voice of its narrator, he offered such strained turns as, "This Salinger, he's a short-story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book though, it's too long. Gets kind of monotonous."
Still others condemned the novel. The Christian Science Monitor (July 19, 1951) complained of the "wholly repellent" vulgarity and "sly perversion" of the piece, concluding that no one who truly loved children could have written such a work. In another widely quoted assessment, Catholic World (November 1951) complained about the "excessive use of amateur swearing and coarse language" and suggested that "some of the events stretch probability," calling Holden "monotonous and phony."
British reviewers were generally unimpressed. The Spectator (August 17, 1951) considered it to be "inconclusive" in theme and a bit too "showy." Times Literary Supplement (September 7, 1951) complains that the "endless stream of blasphemy and obscenity" gets boring after the first chapter.
The novel did well commercially but was not the most popular work of fiction in 1951. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for thirty weeks in all but never climbed higher than fourth. Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny and James Jones' From Here to Eternity, for example, sold more copies initially.
As time passed, however, Salinger's work continued to sell and to attract critical interest. Jack Salzman (in New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye, published by Cambridge University Press) points out that, by 1954, Catcher could be purchased in translation in Denmark, Germany, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. That international popularity is especially interesting considering the novel's dependence on the vernacular. The American version sold 1.5 million copies, mostly in paperback, within its first ten years. Eudora Welty (New York Times, April 5, 1953) gave Salinger a critical boost in a very favorable review of his collection, Nine Stories. James E. Miller (J.D. Salinger, 1965) was an important, relatively early supporter. Literally scores of critical works have praised, scrutinized, and dissected the novel.
There have been, of course, those with reservations. In 1959, Norman Mailer (Advertisements for Myself, published by Harvard University Press) called Salinger "the greatest mind to ever stay in prep school." In the August 1961 Atlantic Monthly, Alfred Kazin sardonically referred to the author as "everybody's favorite" and disparagingly classified Holden as cute: "cute in his little-boy suffering for his dead brother, Allie, and cute in his tenderness for his sister, 'Old Phoebe.'" Writing for the Saturday Review (October 1, 1960), Harvey Swados commented on Salinger's obsession with privacy by dubbing him the "Greta Garbo of American letters"; he found the author talented but boring. Swados and others seem to resent Salinger's popularity, which they attribute to a "cult of personality."
The continuing appeal of The Catcher in the Rye can be traced to two factors. First, it is superbly written. Even Salinger's critics usually admit that he captures the vernacular of the prep school adolescent of the time. Second, the novel's insight appeals to the young, the young at heart, the dreamers of succeeding generations and various cultures. On that rest its universality and its staying power.