Getting Holden into Print


Eden, Janine and Jim: The Catcher in the Rye (first paperback edition), 1953 (CC)

by Michael Moats

In the ‘Backstage with Esquire’ piece accompanying “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise” Salinger wrote of himself, “I am a dash man and not a miler, and it is probable that I will never write a novel.” At the time, he had been overseas with the American infantry for seventeen months, and was reportedly carrying with him the growing manuscript for The Catcher in the Rye. The manuscript was completed in late 1950 and soon offered up to publishers. Robert Giroux, an editor at Harcourt Brace, had approached Salinger the year before about publishing a collection of short stories. Giroux received no response until, months later, Salinger made an unscheduled appearance in his office, “a tall, sad-looking young man with a long face and deep-set black eyes” who came in saying, “It’s not my stories that should be published first, but the novel I’m working on.”

“Do you want to sit behind this desk?” Giroux said. “You sound just like a publisher.”

“No,” Salinger said, “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.” [1]

Author and editor agreed over a handshake.  =When Giroux received and read the manuscript, he was eager to publish the book. But trouble loomed in the higher reaches of his firm. Giroux’s boss Eugene Reynal read the manuscript and wanted to know if Holden Caulfield was supposed to be crazy. Reynal then sent the manuscript to the textbook department, offering the rationale that, “It’s about a preppie, isn’t it?” [i]. Henry Grunwald reported Salinger’s end of the story in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait:

Some time later, [Salinger] called his literary agent and insisted, close to tears, that the book must be taken away from the publishing firm in question.  The agent wanted to know why.  Salinger merely insisted that this was his wish.  When the agent persisted, Salinger finally explained that he could not possibly deal with his prospective editor.  “Why,” said Salinger, “the man thought Holden is crazy.”[ii]

If Eugene Reynal is not typically thought of as the Dick Rowe [2] of American publishing, he probably should be.

After the Harcourt Brace breakdown, the Boston publisher Little, Brown took up Salinger’s manuscript. Again, there was turbulence. Salinger wanted no galleys or review copies sent to press – a request he made once the galleys had already been shipped. He refused to participate in any publicity efforts and was unmoved that, in an unprecedented achievement for a first novel, The Catcher in the Rye had been chosen as a summer selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club [3]. Salinger also demanded that his photograph be removed from the book jacket, a request that wasn’t granted until the third run of the novel, at which point it was a bestseller. This kind of authorial interference in the publishing process was nothing new from Salinger, who as early as 1944 was submitting manuscripts to magazines on the condition that no editing or alterations would be acceptable. In fairness to Salinger, publishing in a magazine like The Saturday Evening Post typically meant having a tightly crafted piece of art paired with cute-captioned illustrations, one-line summaries or sections of dialogue. “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise” had its slow-building subtleties rammed home when the editors of Esquire added, just above the title, “In the Army truck in the Georgia rain he couldn’t forget his brother was missing. [4]” When Catcher was being set and bound, Salinger was also fresh off the maudlin cinematic catastrophe of “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” so he had plenty of reason to want to protect Holden at any cost. Salinger relented on Little, Brown after the chief editor traveled from Boston to New York to confront him, asking: “Do you want this book published or just printed?” [iii] His Book-of-the-Month Club concerns were eased when William Maxwell, a trusted friend and colleague from The New Yorker, was chosen to conduct the standard author interview. Nor, I imagine, did it hurt matters that Maxwell compared Salinger to Flaubert and made the claim that writers like him “go straight to heaven when they die, and their books are not forgotten” [iv].

The Catcher in the Rye was released on July 16, 1951 after a ten-year incubation and a contentious publishing process. To celebrate the American release of his first novel, the author – a man so dedicated to his vocation that in correspondence from the European Theater of World War II he told Story magazine that he was “still writing whenever I can find the time and an unoccupied foxhole” – decided to leave the country for a tour of the British Isles.

Another condition of Salinger’s deal with Little, Brown, was that they not send him any reviews or news clippings about the book. One of the earliest reviews, by James Stern from The New York Times Book Review, ran the day before Catcher was released and presented a mixed bag of responses. Stern didn’t rave about the book, though he did something that may have been even more telling: he wrote the review in imitation of Holden’s voice. Titled “Aw, the World’s a Crumby Place,” it follows a young girl named Helga, who introduces Stern (or whoever Stern’s Holden-voice is meant to be) to Salinger’s short stories. It is Helga who reports back on Salinger’s novel, saying, “This Salinger, he’s a short story guy,” and at book-length gets “kind of monotonous.” [v] Stern tries to argue back: “Know what? This Holden, he’s just like you. He finds the whole world’s full of people who say one thing and mean another and he doesn’t like it,” only to find that, “she was already reading this crazy “Catcher” book all over again. That’s always a good sign with Hel.” Holden’s voice would be featured in many of the reviews that followed. In the daily edition of The New York Times, Nash K. Burger wrote that “Holden’s story is told in Holden’s own strange, wonderful language…an unusually brilliant novel.” [vi] Time wrote that Salinger’s gift was to “understand an adolescent mind without displaying one.” [vii] S.N. Behrman, writing in The New Yorker called Catcher “brilliant, funny, meaningful,” saying that “Holden Caulfield is made to tell his own story, in his own strange idiom.” Behrman closed his review speculating that Holden may one day write his own novel: “I would like to read it. I love this one. I mean it – I really did.”

Whatever its appeal to many readers, Holden’s language would become a serious problem for others. Early reviews complained about Holden’s “amateur swearing” and called him “preposterous, profane, and pathetic beyond belief.” [viii] The Christian Science Monitor wrote that the book was “not fit for children to read,” [ix] and when Catcher was published in Great Britain it was labeled as an “endless stream of blasphemy and obscenity” by The Times Literary Supplement [x].

The year 1954 marked the first attempt to ban Catcher when a school official in Marin County, California, worried that introducing students to Holden Caulfield risked “weakening the moral fiber of the students, making them susceptible to Communism.” [xi] By 1956, the National Organization for Decent Literature had declared Holden objectionable, and Catcher began to attract more than just the attention of literature critics. In 1960 an eleventh grade teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was fired (then reinstated) for assigning the book. Parents in Columbus, Ohio, worked to ban Catcher in 1963 for being “anti-white” and “obscene” – a sentiment they may have picked up from the inaugural issue of the magazine Ramparts in 1962, where Salinger was accused of being “not only anti-Catholic but somehow also ‘pro-Jewish and pro- Negro.’” The author of the piece, Robert O. Bowen, “accused the novelist of being so subversive that he was ‘vehemently anti-Army’ (though Salinger had landed on Utah Beach on D-Day), ‘even anti-America,’ a writer who subscribed to ‘the sick line transmitted by Mort Sahl’ and other ‘cosmopolitan think people.’” [xii]

The challenges accumulated over the years until, according to Herbert N. Forestel’s Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries, by 1981 Holden’s story owned “the unusual distinction of being the nation’s most frequently censored book and, at the same time, the second-most frequently taught novel in the public schools” [xiii]. By the late 1990s Salinger’s novel had dropped to 10th on the most banned book list, between Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa by Mark Mathabane and Daddy’s Roommate, the illustrated children’s book by Michael Willhoite. Certainly, the tolerance for bad language has increased in the decades since Holden first appeared, and a book with 245 instances of the word ‘goddam,’ and only six appearances of the word ‘fuck’ is hardly one to raise eyebrows these days. Stephen Whitfield, who has written extensively on censorship and Salinger, has a different hypothesis on why The Catcher in the Rye has endured: “Among the characters who continue to live in American letters, and to spook the imagination of readers, [Holden Caulfield] did not become a non-person. Because this protagonist also narrates his own story…he can convey his moods and opinions in a distinctive language and with an indelible voice, which is why Holden has outlasted those seeking to throttle him.” [xiv]

Language was an issue as the book made its way into the international markets, too. In French, The Catcher in the Rye is translated as L’attrape-coeurs, which is literally “catch hearts” and in context probably something like “the hearts catcher.”  It’s possible that the flexible translation may have been done to capitalize on the popularity of Boris Vian’s L’arrache-coeur  (Heartsnatcher in English), a successful novel released shortly before Catcher made it to France [xv]. Characteristically, the German title translation Der Fänger Im Roggen is more straightforward and literal than its French counterpart.  The Dutch have three translations: Puber or “Adolescent”; De vanger in het graan or (closer) “The catcher in the grain;” and finally De kinderedder van New York which takes a few liberties to call the book “New York’s child savior.”  This last one is a lot like the Swedish Raddaren i noden, or “Savior in a Crisis” and Iceland’s Bjargvætturinn í grasinu or “Savior in the Grass,” though it’s not at all like the Hungarian Zabhegyezõ or “A Sharpener of Oats,” which reportedly comes from a phrase that means ‘to do something useless.’ The Danish go in the opposite direction of the messianic interpretations and translate Catcher as Forbandede Ungdom or “Damned Youth.” The first Spanish translation was published in Argentina as El Cazador Oculto, “The Hidden Hunter,” while the straightforward Nad propastyu vo rzhi was published in the Russian magazine “Inostrannaya Literatura” (Overseas Literature) in November 1960 and “became a fixture in the library of virtually every Soviet intellectual” [xvi]. Finland’s translator Pentti Saarikoski was “driven to near despair” in his work on Sieppari ruispellossa (also a straightforward translation of the title), and was forced to create a vernacular to mold Holden’s informal English into the generally slang-free Finnish [xvii]. The 1954 Hebrew translation comes out at A’ni, New York, Ve’kol Ha’Sh’ar, meaning “Me, New York, and Everything Else.” A 1975 Hebrew translation opted for a more literal title. The book has been translated three times in Thailand. And the best-selling author Haruki Murakami translated Catcher into his native Japanese, saying “The story becomes darker and darker, and Holden Caulfield doesn’t find his way out of the dark world…I think Salinger himself didn’t find it either.” [xviii]

Excerpt taken from a longer essay, “The Real Holden Caulfield,” available at for purchase at the Fiction Advocate. The author is donating 100% of his earnings to the Wounded Warrior Project.


[1] Giroux’s memories and this exchange come per page 136 of Paul Alexander’s biography Salinger in which Alexander displays a certain flexibility in his willingness to speculate about scenes from the author’s life. This one appears to be based on something Giroux himself has written, making it pretty safe territory, but take it for what it is: a years-old memory recounted by someone who wasn’t there.

[2] Rowe was an A&R man at Decca Records, and is said to be the one who decided to reject the Beatles after their audition in 1962, opting instead for Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.  I am not sure who the Brian Poole and the Tremeloes of American publishing might be.

[3] There is no record of any concern about Holden’s complaint that at school “…everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques…Even the guys that belong to the goddam Book-of-the-Month Club stick together.”

[4] Then again, in fairness to the editors of Esquire, the title of the story is “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise”


[i]. Hamilton 114

[ii]. Grunwald, 20

[iii]. Hamilton 115

[iv] qtd. in Alexander 151

[v]. Stern, James. “Aw, The World’s A Crumby Place.” 15 July 1951. New York Times Online.

[vi]. Quoted in Alexander, 153

[vii]. Quoted in Alexander, 153

[viii]. Whitfield, Stephen J. “Cherished and Cursed: Toward a Social History of The Catcher in the Rye.” The New England Quarterly. Vol. 70, No. 4 (Dec., 1997), pp. 567-600.

[ix]. Quoted in Whitfield, 591

[x]. Slawenski, Kenneth. J.D. Salinger: A Life. New York. Random House, 2011, pp. 218

[xi]. Whitfield, Stephen J. “Raise High the Bookshelf, Censors!” The Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 2002, pp. 357-360.

[xii]. Quoted in Whitfield “Cherished and Cursed,” 579

[xiii]. 212

[xiv]. Whitfield, “Raise High the Bookshelf, Censors!”

[xv]. Riggs, Thomas. “Translating Catcher in the Rye a la francaise.” 12 February 2010. Thomas Riggs and Co . 5 April 2010 .

[xvi]. Krastev, Nikola. “Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ Resonated Behind Iron Curtain As Well.” 29 January 2010. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 28 March 2010 .

[xvii]. Routti, Laura. “Norms and Storms: Pentti Saarikoski’s Translation of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.” NA NA 2001. The Electronic Journal of the Department of English at the University of Helsinki. 28 March 2010.

[xviii]. Armstrong, Stephen. “Ten things you need to know about Haruki Murakami.” 20 July 2008. Times Online. 28 March 2010 .