The Catcher in the Rye as an Autobiographical Novel

The Catcher in the Rye covers two days in the life of its hero, Holden Caulfield after he expelled from Pencey Prep, Pennsylvania. The novel achieved a 'cult' status in the 1950s, had been on Salinger's mind for years before he actually wrote it.

Jerome David Salinger

The audacious opening of the novel suggests it: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all-I'm saying that-but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything."

This holds the key to J.D. Salinger's own life. He was not close to his father, although he had a certain regard for his mother to whom the novel is dedicated: To MY MOTHER. From whatever little we know of his life, Salinger's mother, Miriam-or Marie—had been an actress, or had played in vaudeville (like Bessie in Salinger's Glass stories). Holden Caulfield's mother is an actress called Mary Moriarity in an unpublished story of the 1940s. Like Holden Caulfield, Salinger was an affluent big-city boy, both having lived in New York during their formative years. And Salinger has guarded his private life, the little biographical details, all along-in the same manner as Holden Caulfield does in the beginning of his masterpiece. Salinger's Childhood has never been publicly discussed.

He has often said that he started writing at the age of fifteen-that is to say, during his first year at Valley Forge Military Academy. It has been alleged that Valley Forge is the model for Pencey Prep, Holden Caulfield's alma mater in The Catcher in the Rye: a plausible theory, since Valley Forge, like Pencey, is only a short train ride from New York. The academy is based near Wayne, a small town in Pennsylvania, about half an hour's drive from Philadelphia. It was founded in 1928 and, according to its manifesto, the school's mission from the start was to turn out "young men fully prepared to meet their responsibilities, alert in mind, sound in body, considerate of others, and with a high sense of duty, honor, loyalty and courage. Valley Forge implements these goals and gives them structure through the value‘, found in military discipline." About Pencey, Holden says, "They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hotshot guy on a horse jumping over a fence. Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was playing polo all the time. I never even once saw a horse anywhere near the place, And underneath the guy on the horse's picture, it always says, 'Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men" Strictly for the birds. They don't do any damn more molding at Pencey than they do at any other school. And I didn't know anybody there that was splendid and clear-thinking and all. Maybe two guys. If that many. And they probably came to Pencey that way." And this irrelevance, darkly allegorical, is sustained from first to last. The Catcher's colloquial act is not just something boldly headlined on page one; its humor, its pathos and, above all, its wisdom, the certainty of its world view is Salinger's own. Like Holden Caulfield, he knows the difference between the phony and the true.

Like Holden Caulfield, Salinger was a misfit at Valley Forge. A contemporary of his recalled that he cannot imagine why Salinger's parents sent him to a military school knowing his traits and sensitive personality. Perhaps his father, who was Jewish and a successful cheese importer in New York, felt he needed the discipline. He was very close to his mother, who was not Jewish. I met her briefly at the academy and remember her as an attractive and gracious woman, who obviously adored by son. Salinger's performance at Valley Forge was the average, like Holden Caulfield's. Although Salinger could scrape through his years at Valley Forge, Holden Caulfield is dismissed from Pencey Prep for having failed in four of the five subjects. That kick starts his adventures.

The ruling genius at Valley Forge was the founder, Colonel Milton S. Baker-the model for Pencey's headmaster The Catcher in the Rye. Fund-raising was a Baker's obsession, like old Thurmer's at Pencey who is described by Holden Caulfield as "a phony slob". Baker was a likely butt for Salinger's increasing sense of the absurd and it should be no surprise that when The Catcher in the Rye appeared, poor Baker was shocked. "I thought it was filthy," he told Salinger in 1963. Other Valley Forge staff members would also have attracted Salinger's sardonic eye. And among the cadets themselves there were more than few eccentrics: the handsome cadet captain who served as crucifer in chapel and was busted to private after being caught in a nearby whorehouse; the cadet wino rigged up the radio program Gang Busters to the loudspeaker system in the barracks; the upper class bully who beat a new cadet for not answering a question quickly enough and thus forever cured him of his stammer.  These were the real-life Ackleys, Stradiaters and Marsailas it would seem. And cadet did fall to his death from a window in one of the dormitories like James Castle.

Salinger's own misbehaviors seem to have been mild: sneaking out of school at night, getting drunk from time to time. There was one night when Salinger became so impossibly drunk and "Holden Caulfieldish", vowing to break out of school on and for all that a close friend had to fall him with a knockout punch to prevent him from waking the militia. His favorite expression, like Holden Caulfield's for someone he did not care for was: "John, you really are a prince of a guy", and of course the meaning never got through except to his friends. One day Salinger's mother came to visit the school. She commented on the red flashes that sonic of the, boys wore on their caps (these were awarded for meritorious conduct of one sort or another). Salinger told her that she must at all costs avoid speaking with these boys. The flashes, lie said, were worn as punishment for using profane language. This, then, was the detached mildly rebellious Holden Caulfieldish Salinger at Valley Forge.

There is in him, as there is said to have been in Salinger, a rather touching willingness to please, to keep the peace, to tell people what they seem to want to hear. Holden's lying with the mother of Ernest Morrow, a fellow student at Pencey's on the train as "Mothers are all slightly insane". "Her son was doubtless the biggest bastard that ever went to Pencey." He gives a false name to himself, the warden of his dorm, and paints a flattering picture of Ernest to his mother. He calls him "a very sensitive boy". ("That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a goddamn toilet seat.") And then he tells her that lie, he is going home for an operation ("I have this tiny little tumor on the brain") although there is no need to do so. The trouble with Holden is that he just can't stop once he starts lying. Holden has an actor's ability to win over most of the grownups, he has dealt with; if he can bluff his way out of a tight corner

Another Caulfield obsession is with education, a subject to which the author had devoted long years of uneasiness and which, it can plausibly be said, is not the heart of everything Salinger has written since The Catcher in the Rye. After his failure to come to terms with the details of formal education, Salinger joined a Valley Forge classmate Herbert Kauffman and both of them worked as 'entertainers' on a cruise liner, the Ms Kungsholm. Another friend of Salinger's, called Holden, was on this same cruise and, according to Kauffman, the name Holden Caulfield comes from a joining of his name to that of a movie actress called Joan Caulfield, on whom young Salinger later had a huge crush. His story 'A Girl I Knew' appeared in Good Housekeeping in the late 1940s and has a documentary, real-life feel. The father in the story, out of patience with his son's repeated academic failures, decides to send his boy abroad "to learn a couple of languages the firm could use".

Salinger did go back to college in the fall of 1918 as a nineteen-year-old freshman at Ursinus College in Collegeville Pennsylvania. It hardly looked like a college; it is miles away from anywhere. There is no local town to speak of, and the bus service to more distant points is intermittent. Salinger's fellow students remembered him "for what he did not do, rather than for what he did". He was considered a loner, very much like Holden Caulfield. He was not close to anyone-students or professors. Again, like Holden Caulfield, he was bored and unhappy because he felt Ursinus had little to offer him. Generally, he had no friends or companions, He came from New York and looked at the college and students with disdain. He seemed so dissatisfied. He never smiled, gave a friendly greeting or responded to overtures of acceptance. His manner was nasty, His remarks, if any, were caustic.

Elements of real-life young Salinger keep overlapping with bits of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye at all points, right since the time Salinger published his first story 'The Young Folks' in Story's issue of March-April 1940, it also revealed that here was a young writer with some feeling for the sentence, its balances and flexibilities. Salinger's aim is for a light but firmly packed effect. Holden Caulfield and his adventures were playing at the back of his mind. He wrote to Elizabeth Murray on November 2, 1942 about this obsession and admitted that the boy-hero, Holden Caulfield is a portrait of himself when young.

Between 1949 and 1951, Salinger turned down all proposals from publishers as his stories were being talked about to concentrate on The Catcher in the Rye, insisting: "No, you can do the stories later if you want, but I think my novel about this kid in New York during the Christmas holidays should come out first."True to his character, Salinger not only asked his publisher's office to send him no reviews of his novel but actually made them promise not to. His attachment to the title was evident when the Book of the Month Club asked him to call The Catcher in the Rye by some other name: ‘Holden Caulfield wouldn't like that.'