The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye Catcher in the Rye: A History of Censorship

The Catcher in the Rye has long been a lightning rod for controversy over the years, generating many calls for censorship, some of them successful, thus making it a central work in 20th-century and even censorship debates. Between 1966 and 1975, it was the most frequently banned book in schools. Teachers were fired for assigning the book to students, and numerous boards debated the book’s place in the classroom.

In 1976, a legislative hearing in Oklahoma City involved a local censorship group seeking to prevent a bookseller from vending the book. The group went so far as to take vigilante action, parking a “Smutmobile” outside the hearing in the hopes of swaying the decision. Ultimately the bookseller dropped the book from his inventory in order to avoid further scandal.

Ten years later, controversy emerged again in Pennsylvania when the book was assigned in a local literature class. Parents objected, and the school board voted to ban the book. Soon after, parents in New Jersey complained to their school board about the book’s “filthy and profane” language and its apparent promotion of premarital sex, homosexuality, and perversion. They also claimed that it was “explicitly pornographic” and, predictably, “immoral” (Sova 2). The board ultimately relented, banning the book for everyone but Advanced Placement students, who they ruled could understand and appreciate the novel’s universal message. Still, parents were given the right to prevent their children from reading the book.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the book again became the subject of intense censorship. Parents in a small Washington town asserted that the book had nearly 800 instances of profanity. They even stated boldly that it was part of a Communist plot, one that was gaining such a foothold in the schools that “a lot of people are used [to it] and may not even be aware of it” (Sova 3). Capitalizing on anti-Communist sentiment, the parents quickly saw their complaints validated when the school board banned the book.

Objections continue to this day. Parents in Ohio, Alabama, Florida, North Dakota, California, Mississippi, Illinois, and New Hampshire have all complained to their school boards and had the book banned for a variety of reasons. Some object to the frank discussion of sexuality, others to the main character’s godlessness, and some simply to the portrayal of misanthropy. Many of these parents point to the known obsessive fans of Salinger’s novel, who have gone on to destructive infamy. These fans include Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon and was found carrying the book afterwards. Chapman also read a passage from the book at his sentencing. John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was also alleged to have been obsessed with the book. And Robert John Bardo, who murdered Rebecca Schaeffer, was found carrying the book when he visited her apartment. Parents tend to call the book a sort of anti-social Bible that deserves to be exterminated from school curricula.