Why is The Catcher in the Rye a Classic?

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  • 0:00 Characteristics of Classics
  • 1:10 Historical and Social…
  • 2:15 Universal Themes and Content
  • 3:10 Popularity vs. Timelessness
  • 4:11 Infamy and Notoriety
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joel West

Joel has taught middle and high school English and has a master's degree in literature and cultural studies.

'The Catcher in the Rye' has been among the most influential American books since its publication in 1951. This lesson examines what makes Salinger's novel an American classic.

Characteristics of Classics

When you hear the words classic literature, what comes to mind? Is it stuffy period pieces, where the list of characters is so long, you'd rather just not even get started? Does it have to be really old? What about a book that has been censored, or even banned? Sometimes, labeling a book as a classic can be misleading, because it means so many different things to different readers.

When books are labeled as classic literature, there are a number of factors that may contribute to this prestigious designation. Some of these factors may include, but are not limited to, cultural and historical significance, universality of thematic content, popularity, sales, and notoriety, among many others. Needless to say, not all classic works of literature are created equal. In this lesson, we will examine some of the factors that contribute to the classic status of J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye.

Historical and Social Significance

First of all, the narrative of Holden Caulfield's journey from Pencey Prep to New York City and his now-infamous three-day escapade offer twenty-first century readers a glimpse of life in the years immediately following World War II. The book itself became instantly contested with two somewhat conflicting reviews published in the New York Times on two consecutive days in 1951. First greeted with mixed sentiments, the novel ultimately received glowing reviews, which catapulted the novel to a level close to that of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises just a little over 25 years earlier.

The Catcher in the Rye ultimately ended up being quite influential upon subsequent post-war literary and cultural movements, including Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac. Other cultural scholars have given the Holden Caulfield character credit for youth movements of the 1960s and 1970s, beginning with Hollywood's portrayal of rebellious youth in the mid to late 1950s.

Universal Themes and Content

Although much has changed since the era when Salinger first penned Holden's story, little has changed with regard to how teenagers view the world during adolescence - something often referred to as teen angst. For many readers, The Catcher in the Rye changes the way they identify with literature. Feeling a lack of agency, or control, in their own lives is a part of the adolescent struggle. It is not uncommon for young readers to identify with Holden Caulfield.

Besides teen angst, the story also deals with thematic material related to mental health, family issues, adolescent relationships, and school dynamics. While each of these could easily be a lesson on its own, the important take-away in this lesson is the fact that the use of universal themes and content contribute to the novel's classic status.

Popularity vs. Timelessness

Classic status for literature can be a result of popularity or whether the work in question is able to stand the test of time. Unlike literature that we consider classics from the pre-industrial age, we have sales figures in the form of copies sold that help demonstrate the popularity of a work of literature. The Catcher in the Rye, for example, has sold over 65 million copies to date and continues to sell very well each year.

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