What is it About The Catcher in the Rye? (Here’s to You, J.D. Salinger)

Publish date:

At the age of 91, J.D. Salinger died Wednesday.

I remember being 16 and reading a book with a bizarre carousel horse on the cover, and being completely taken, wooed, left mumbling things about “phonies” and wishing I knew what a hound’s-tooth jacket looked like so I could work on the swift acquisition of one.

But at work yesterday, as I thought about Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye, I stopped dead when I couldn’t remember why: What made the book so good in the first place?

I pondered it on the way home—was it Holden? The writing? The plot, the metaphors, the conclusion? Hell, was it the setting? (For more on the mechanics, I’ve discovered that Write Like the Masters has some solid insights into Salinger’s prose.)

Later, the question surfaced again. It’s been said that the book was merely like a toy or a timepiece, something you were lucky to get a hold of at a specific moment in your life: the right book at the right time.

And now that he’s gone, there’s a lot of talk again about the habits of the author himself, which complicates such wondering. A recluse, rumored to do strange things (a taste for urine?) in his strange home as he wrote off the world in pursuit of strange things we may never know. (Former WD Editor Maria Schneider and I talked about him every so often, deeming him the “holy grail” of writing magazine interviews, something you could aspire to, but never would really get.)

When I finally reached my computer late last night, it occurred to me why I like the book, and Salinger, so much.

Who cares that he did whatever he may have done in his self-imposed exile, or that if I had written to pitch an interview, he never would have written back. Who cares if Catcher was a literary mirror to some for teen angst, the perfect book for the right moment in time—after all, I wonder if hitting that one moment is all most of us can hope for anyway, as writers, and as readers.

At the end of the day, my own love for the book is pretty selfish: Catcher, like all books that strike writer-types, has an energy that can make you want to write.

And back then, just like today, when merely starting to write anything can seem like an impossible task in the face of everything else that’s going on (when I was 16 I believe it was standardized tests, skateboarding and the dissolution of month-long relationships), I think that’s a pretty great thing.

Even if I never did find my own hound’s-tooth jacket.


WRITING PROMPTS: Literary Roadshow—J.D. Salinger Edition
In 500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring, write a story inspired by or including the following (from Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye). Feel free to take the prompts home or post your responses in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

“You’re sorry. You’re sorry. That’s very funny,” she said. She was still sort of crying, and all of a sudden I did feel sort of sorry I’d said it.
“C’mon, I’ll take ya home. No kidding.”
“I can go home by myself, thank you. If you think I’d let you take me home, you’re mad. No boy ever said that to me in my entire life.”


“Daddy’s going to kill you. He’s going to kill you,” she said.
I wasn’t listening, though. I was thinking about something else—something crazy. “You know what I’d like to be?” I said. "You know what I’d like to be?”

Lacie Waldon: On Writing What You Know ... But Keeping it Interesting

Lacie Waldon: On Writing What You Know ... But Keeping it Interesting

Debut novelist Lacie Waldon discusses how her agent encouraged her to write what she knew, but then her editor made her realize that what she thought was boring might not be the case.

Pedal vs. Peddle (Grammar Rules)

Pedal vs. Peddle (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use pedal and peddle with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Marissa Levien: On Pinning Down Your Novel's Middle

Marissa Levien: On Pinning Down Your Novel's Middle

Debut author Marissa Levien discusses how she always knew what the beginning and the end of her science fiction novel The World Gives Way would be, but that the middle remained elusive.

Drawing the Line for Withholding Secrets in Young Adult and Middle-Grade Novels

Drawing the Line for Withholding Secrets in Young Adult and Middle Grade Novels

Middle-grade and young adult author Ren Koppel Torres shares the top tips for how you can keep secrets from your characters and readers.

Payal Doshi: On Letting Rejection Bring You Clarity

Payal Doshi: On Letting Rejection Bring You Clarity

Middle-grade author Payal Doshi discusses the sometimes-disheartening process of querying a novel and how she used rejection to fuel her passion for writing.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Writer’s Digest Conference Announcements and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce that our 2021 Annual Conference will be virtual, registration is open for our 2021 in-person Novel Conference, and more!

Rajani LaRocca: On Letting Your Synopsis Guide Your Writing

Rajani LaRocca: On Letting Your Synopsis Guide Your Writing

In this article, middle-grade author Rajani LaRocca discusses how the synopsis for her newest release, Much Ado About Baseball, guided her writing process.

From Script

Adding Your Personal Connection to Your Stories and Building Your Brand As a Writer (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by ScriptMag.com, Script’s Editor Sadie Dean interviews Dickinson creator/showrunner/EP Alena Smith, learn how to divide and conquer as screenwriter in the business and creating fruitful relationships. Plus, a brand new Script Talk video interview with writer/director/actress Djaka Souaré about her journey as a mentor and mentee in the WOCUnite and #StartWith8Hollywood mentorship programs.

Poetic Forms

Englyn Penfyr: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the englyn penfyr, a Welsh tercet form.