About The Catcher in the Rye Historical Setting



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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