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Sarah Graham. J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Sarah Graham. J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Routledge Guides to Literature, 2007, 128 pp. $14.95 paper.

If writing literary scholarship especially--but far from exclusively--on contemporary authors can be viewed as investing in futures, it might have been wise, from the 1960s on, to sell J. D. Salinger short. Regardless of one's regard for his work, Salinger's regard for the marketplace (it was a form of prostitution) has made intellectual investment in him risky business. And despite Sarah Graham's claim, in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, that the criticism on The Catcher in the Rye has been extensive, for a book so widely read and taught, so socially and stylistically influential, the body of criticism is not huge, a point suggested by Graham's careful, detailed summary of critical reception over the last half century.

The Catcher in the Rye made its initial impact during the post-WWII moment when the techniques of verisimilitude and the themes of modernism, focused through the lens of psychological rather than social realism, consolidated in the American academy around New Critical analyses of structures, symbols, and motifs. In the case of The Catcher in the Rye, the reference point for such analyses was Huckleberry Finn, lodged in what was identified as the transcendent--essentially American--qualities of both novels. The next stage of criticism reflected challenges to the academic lingua franca, informed by Marxist and psychoanalytic approaches that valorized Caulfield as social critic or diminished him as psychically damaged. More recent scholarship, reflecting the embrace of cultural criticism, read the novel as symptomatic of the cultural conditions and discursive practices historically specific to its moment of production.

The five new essays assembled in this volume are, for the most part, consistent with this post- 1980s trend. Sally Robinson does an important job of framing the critical history surrounding Caulfiled' s incipient "manhood" within the shift, in the 1950s, from a martial understanding of masculinity, as defined by action and individualism, to a consumerist understanding that aligns masculine behavior with the traditionally "feminine" traits of passivity and conformity. Consistent with this argument, Clive Baldwin contends that focusing on the novel's female characters "reveals a persistent association of Holden with the feminine and the maternal that runs counter to his often conventional and sometimes misogynistic responses to women" (118). Similarly, Caulfield' s absorption in the largesse of white privilege, Renee R. Curry shows, subliminally reflects the tenuousness of that privilege, so that Caulfield' s breakdown portends the social destabilization, decades later, of the transparency with which whiteness expresses and exercises privilege. While Curry too facilely equates wealth with whiteness, the essay nevertheless foregrounds important parameters of Caulfield's discourse. Pia Livia Hekanaho, in an essay that adds only a little to the extant criticism, successfully underscores how The Catcher in the Rye challenges heteronormativity despite, or even because of, Caulfield's prolific evocation of heterosexual norms. The fifth essay, by Denis Jonnes, echoes earlier Salinger criticism, invoking a generally pre-cultural studies approach. Analyzing the role of trauma in structuring the novel, Jones connects what we know of Salinger's biographical trauma to Caulfield's compulsions--to talk, to avoid, to escape, to return to a pre-lapsarian innocence, and to hold society accountable for an unnamed hurt.

While these essays will not revolutionize Caulfield criticism or perform the perhaps impossible task of impelling a new qualitative and quantitative status to Salinger studies, they very ably complement Graham's deft summary of Salinger's life and times, her own intelligent reading of the novel, and her outstanding review of the critical history. As a whole, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is the perfect, concise introduction of this Cold War novel to the serious 21st-century reader.

Alan Nadel

University of Kentucky
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Author:Nadel, Alan
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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