1950's Culture Exposed in The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is a remarkable book that gives readers a unique and perhaps gloomy perspective of the 1950's through Holden Caulfield, a cynical and peculiar teenager. Through The Catcher in the Rye Salinger describes important aspects of the 1950's. Salinger emphasizes several key characteristics of the 50's and criticizes them through Holden. In addition, Holden Caulfield is a very interesting character with several traits that put him at odds with society.
Holden attacks various weaknesses in the 50's society. He criticizes nearly everything that he observes, and refuses to pull punches. Often Holden uses his brilliant talent of observation to discover the true motives behind the people he calls "phony." Through his observations the reader can interpret Salinger's view of the 1950's culture. Holden's perceptions of paranoia, conformity, and the consumer culture convey Salinger's views.
The Catcher in the Rye gives the reader a window into the hidden paranoia of the 1950's. On the first page Holden tells the reader "my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them." (p.1) This demonstrates the standoffish demeanor of the 50's. Holden observers this paranoia but does not attribute it to the nature of his society. During the 1950's people became much less open about their lives mainly because of the Domestic Cold War and McCarthyism. People became nervous that they would become the latest targets of a HUAC investigation. In 1951, when Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye the nation was transfixed with the Rosenberg Trial and could still easily remember the Alger Hiss Hearing and the Hollywood purges. Salinger makes the standoffish mood of 1950's prevalent throughout the novel. When Holden takes a cab to "Ernie's" in Greenwich Village he has a conversation with the cab driver, Horwitz. Salinger demonstrates the paranoia of the 50's by emphasizing how angry Horwitz is that Holden is asking him so many questions.
Throughout The Catcher in the Rye Holden complains that the people around him are all "phony." This view probably stems from the extensive trend of conformity that infected the 1950's. The reader can understand Holden's reason for hating these phonies. Holden describes any person that embraces the popular culture as a "phony" and disdains them for it. This is clear when Holden goes to see "The Lunts" with Sally Hayes and is absolutely disgusted by the people around him. When Holden meets Sally's acquaintance, George, he immediately recognizes him as a phony, 'strictly ivy league. Big deal." (p.127) Holden cannot stand people who do not think for themselves. Although Salinger never states his opinion directly, one can assume by Holden's statements that Salinger was also critical of the 50's theme of conformity, or at least aware of it.