The Long, Bloody Reach of ‘Catcher in the Rye’

For a book with very little violence, it sure has been caught up in a lot of murder and mayhem
The Long, Bloody Reach of ‘Catcher in the Rye’

A lot of adjectives could reasonably be applied to the J.D. Salinger coming-of-age novel — and rapidly-going-of-age English teacher favorite — The Catcher in the Rye. Tedious, uncomfortable, incredibly off-putting — check, check and incredibly check. But “violent” isn’t really one of them. There’s a handful of fistfights and an extremely brief fantasy about shooting a pimp who robbed Holden Caulfield. It’s literally one paragraph. The Harry Potter series is more violent.

That’s why it’s so weird that a lot of people seemed to read this character study of a lost, cowardly boy and decide, “I think I’ll do a murder” — and some really high-profile ones, at that. It could most logically be explained by one guy’s somewhat arbitrary obsession and then a lot of copycats, but there’s a few wrenches in those gears, or rather, catches in those ryes.

For the most part, it all started with Mark David Chapman, who famously shot John Lennon in 1980 and then calmly sat down to read his favorite book while he waited for the police to take him away. It’s unclear what role Catcher in the Rye played in Chapman’s motivations. He denounced Lennon as the epitome of “phoniness,” Caulfield’s greatest aversion, and he’s claimed on multiple occasions that the sole purpose of Lennon’s murder was to promote the book, which shows a poor understanding of the literary publicity machine (murderers aren’t desirable BookTok influencers).

But he’s also said he was offended by Lennon’s irreverence for God and the Beatles (who Chapman seemed to regard as equally sacred), the evil communist message of “Imagine” and Lennon’s personal wealth. To be clear, Chapman decried Lennon as both a dirty commie and a bourgeois pig. Basically, he was just unhinged. Catcher in the Rye was only one of his numerous obsessions, and if it hadn’t been that, he would have adopted something else as his “manifesto.” He was obsessed with Todd Rundgren for a while there, too. What a different world we’d be living in if Chapman had merely been inspired to bang on the drum all day.

The next year, John Hinckley Jr. failed to assassinate Ronald Reagan but succeeded at gunning down a few bystanders. Salinger’s book was later found on his coffee table, indicating that he’d likely been reading it not long before the attack. But again, it was somewhat incidental as an influence. Hinckley took a lot more inspiration from Taxi Driver, becoming obsessed with Jodie Foster and identifying with Travis Bickle, deciding that, like the character in the movie, he needed to assassinate a public figure to get her attention. (Gentlemen, for your information, this rarely works.) He later confirmed that he had indeed developed a fondness for Salinger, but only after reading about Chapman, so it was really more the murder that he was interested in than the ruminations on lost innocence. This does mean that Chapman’s PR campaign apparently worked, so what do I know?

Finally, in 1989, Robert John Bardo shot sitcom star Rebecca Schaeffer, and then threw the copy of Catcher in the Rye he was carrying into an alley as he made his escape. That’s right: The novel’s notoriety had reached “implicit evidence” levels, as necessary to dispose of as a weapon. As shady as that sounds, though, this seems to be another case of murder or book (it’s like the chicken or the egg, but with more podcasts about it). Bardo never spoke lovingly of Salinger, but he did look to Chapman for inspiration and guidance. In fact, to hear him tell it, he was a lot more influenced by a U2 song (as well as, you know, his lengthy obsession with Schaeffer and other famous women he stalked).

It all seems to lead back to Chapman and his fateful choice of reading material, but there’s one outlier — who happens to be one of the most famous assassins of all time. We’re talking about Lee Harvey Oswald, folks. A search of his apartment after the murder of JFK turned up a dog-eared copy of Catcher in the Rye, which didn’t raise any red flags at the time but sure as hell looks bad now. That was nearly 20 years before Lennon’s murder, so we can just tear down all the red string attached to Chapman’s photo on the wall and shove all the papers off our desk in a rage.

It’s such a bizarre link between some of the most well-known assassinations in recent history that people have invented entire conspiracy theories to explain it. They say it’s a Manchurian Candidate situation, and the book contains “trigger words” that activate CIA-trained patsies who are so brainwashed that they don’t even remember they were brainwashed. There’s a number of problems with that theory, not the least of which is the absolute uncertainty that any given person is gonna power through The Catcher in the Rye, so we can probably go Occam’s razor here.

For one thing, it’s just a very popular book, reaching the bestseller list in its first year and maintaining steady sales in the 70 intervening years. It’s like finding out that lots of murderers are MCU fans, albeit if Marvel movies required reading. It’s also specifically popular with young men, and specific kinds of young men. Caulfield himself is kind of an incel, so naturally, other alienated and overbearing young men are going to see themselves in him. Most of them aren’t going to kill anybody, but they’re probably more likely to do so than well-adjusted men with healthy boundaries. It might seem dubious that anyone would listen to Holden Caulfield and think, “Yeah, this guy has the right idea,” but transphobes love to claim to be redpilled

Besides, anything can be misinterpreted if you try hard enough.

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