For Op-Ed News
In the sixth grade, the Boys’ Vice-Principal threatened to suspend me from school unless I stopped carrying around The Catcher in the Rye I think because it had the word “fuck” in it. Since the Boys’ Vice-Principal hadn’t read the book – and I don’t think he’d ever read any book – he couldn’t tell me why.
But Mrs. Gordon was cool. She let me keep the book at my desk and read it at recess as long as I kept a brown wrapper over the cover.
I think J.D. Salinger would have liked Mrs. Gordon. She wanted to save me from the world’s vice-principals, the guys who wanted to train you in obedience to idiots and introduce you the adult world of fear and punishment. Mrs. Gordon wanted to protect the need of a child to run free.
That’s, of course, how the word fuck got into Salinger’s book. For the 5% of you who haven’t read it, the main character of the book, Holden Caulfield, tries to erase the f-word off the wall of a New York City school. He doesn’t want little kids like his sister Phoebe to see it, that somehow it would trigger an irreversible loss of her childhood innocence:
I thought Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them””all cockeyed, naturally””what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days.
Which is where the title came from. Salinger’s Caulfield, pushed to the edge of his own youth and directed to prepare himself for the job market, could see for himself only one career: as a catcher in the rye. He imagined a bunch of kids playing away happily in a rye field, but a field on a cliff’s-edge. Every time a child, lost in their game, would drift toward the edge, Caulfield’s job would be to catch them before they fell.