Explain the Historical Background to The Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye is more than just a story of one alienated teenager trying to make sense of his life. It is also the portrait of the first generation of Americans to grow up in the Cold War era. Holden Caulfield's anguished search for love and spiritual fulfillment reflects the sense of despair and spiritual emptiness that many Americans felt following World War II.
The Destruction of World War II
World War II was the most destructive conflict in world history, yet it left America stronger than it had ever been. While traditional powers like England, France, Germany, and Japan were devastated, the continental U.S. was untouched by invasion, bombing, or fighting. (For more information on World War II, please look in the Basics section.)
World War II also featured the first (and so far only) use of nuclear weapons in combat. On August 6, 1945, an American B-29 named the Enola Gay (left) dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, an atomic bomb destroyed Nagasaki. The casualty toll at Hiroshima was staggering: 68,000 dead, 37,000 injured, and 10,000 missing. Another 35,000 perished at Nagasaki. Thousands more would die slow deaths from cancer in the years to follow.
Social Effects of World War II
World War II changed American society permanently. 15 million men, including J.D. Salinger, and several hundred thousand women served in the U.S. military during World War II. When they returned home, tens of thousands were able to attend college, buy businesses or farms, and own their own homes thanks to the GI Bill (a government program to give financial assistance to veterans.) These returning veterans caused the Baby Boom: between 1945 and 1965, 76 million babies were born. Many of these new families moved to brand new, cookie-cutter suburbs that spread in widening circles around the nation's cities. Government housing grants, the availability of land on the outskirts of cities, and the mobility afforded by automobiles rapidly expanded the urban landscape. Networks of freeways and beltways were built to knit these suburbs and the cities they surrounded into a single fabric.
The Cold War
The Cold War, and the resulting threat of nuclear destruction, added to a sense of anxiety that many Americans felt in the late 1940's and 1950's. The Cold War is name given to the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union from the end of World War II in 1945 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Some of the key crises of the Cold War in the late 1940's and 1950's were the Berlin blockade and the Korean War. The Berlin blockade led to the formation of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a mutual-defense organization for Western Europe and the United States. (For more information on the Cold War, please look in the Basics section.)
Anti-Communism at Home
The suspicion and paranoia caused by the Cold War led to anti-Communist crusades in the US. Senator Joseph McCarthy led a witch-hunt to purge suspected Communists from the U.S. government. (For more on McCarthy, please see the Basics section) Many institutions of American society, such as universities, required their workers to sign loyalty oaths pledging allegiance to the United States. In 1953, President Eisenhower (left) signed an executive order that allowed for dismissal of government employees for "any behavior, activities, or associations which tend to show that the individual is not reliable or trustworthy." Eventually, 1500 government employees were dismissed and 6000 resigned under this order. (Very few of these were Communists.) In the 1950's, many Americans were fearful and suspicious of foreigners and nonconformists like Holden Caulfield.
The Affluent Society
The 1950's seemed to many people to be a time of almost unlimited possibilities. The decade offered economic prosperity and material comforts to many Americans accustomed to the harder times of World War II and the Great Depression. Between 1948 and 1960, the gross national product (the total value of domestic and international goods and services produced each year) almost doubled, rising to $503 billion. In 1955, the U.S. had 6 percent of the world's population, but consumed more than a third of the world's goods and services. The steady growth of the economy raised the standard of living for many. Because incomes were rising and people were buying on credit, more people than ever before could purchase a wide variety of consumer goods.
Americans consumed in the fifties. The majority of Americans owned their own homes. By 1956, nearly every family owned a refrigerator, and eight out of every ten families owned a television set. Automatic washing machines, clothes dryers, home freezers, and vacuum cleaners had once been luxuries. Now they were necessities. These and other goods seemed to make life more enjoyable by making housework easier. Designing consumer goods that quickly wore out encouraged consumption. This planned obsolescence guaranteed that people would have to replace these goods. Frequent style changes in cars had the same result. As in the 1920s, advertising (now on television) encouraged people to "keep up with the Joneses" by buying an increasing number of material goods.
Critical Voices in the 1950's
In the middle of all this material prosperity, many artists and intellectuals felt a growing sense of despair. The Post-Modernist period in American literature, from 1950 on, featured writers who responded to what they perceived as the threatening implications of the postwar world, in which whole populations had been exterminated and in which there existed the possibility of imminent nuclear destruction. Many of the writers in this period reflect a sense of despair, paranoia, and irrational violence. Some examples of these postwar voices are Salinger, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer (pictured at left), Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon.
Many intellectuals criticized American conformity and consumerism in the 1950's. According to the journalist William Shannon, the 1950's were "years of flabbiness and self-satisfaction and gross materialism The loudest sound in the land has been the oink-and-grunt of private hoggishness It has been the age of the slob." Sociologist David Reisman in The Lonely Crowd (1950) argued that America had gone from being a haven for freethinkers to a land of conformity that squashed individuality.(For more information on The Lonely Crowd, please look in the Basics section.) William Whyte, in The Organization Man (1956), described how "one had to get along to go along." In this new corporate culture, organization men learned to conform to the wishes of others, avoid conflict, and not assert themselves as individuals. Holden Caulfield's father, a corporate lawyer, represents this kind of organization man.
Intellectuals blamed the increasing number of suburbs for much of this conformity in American society. According to the sociologist Lewis Mumford, the suburbs were "a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless, communal wasteland, inhabited by a people of the same class, the same income, the same age group." Sloan Wilson, author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1961), pictured the suburbs as architecturally monotonous, chock full of children, and settled by rootless, driven adults.
The postwar world that Holden Caulfield confronts is a materialistic, consumer-oriented society whose chief goal (to him) seems to be to display one's wealth in order to impress one's neighbors. The prosperity of the 1950's, coupled with the anxiety over the Cold War, led to a conformism in American life. Many rebels, nonconformists, and quirky individualists like Holden Caulfield had trouble relating to mainstream American society in the 1950's.