Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: Great YetControversial IconsSalinger and Nabokov are most widely known just for one oftheir works, namely The Catcher in theRye and Lolita, and both novels regularlyappear on lists such as Modern Library’s “100Best Novels”1and Time Magazine’s “All-Time 100Novels”2.
Published in the 1950s, they are both some ofmy personal favorite books, and in this essay, I will attempt to discover whythey are so iconic and where they might be iconoclastic. The structure of myessay is thus divided into three topics: I will firstly compare their criticalreception at their initial release and provide additional context on America inthe 1950s; I will then move on to the pervading theme of adolescence anddiscuss how differently it is presented; and in my last part I will focus onthe afterlife of the two novels – not just in the literary world, but inWestern culture in general.America in the 1950s was very much a conservative societyand in 1953, after 20 years of Democratic rule, the Republican candidate DwightEisenhower won the presidential election and later that year made an importantspeech at Dartmouth regarding censorship: Don’t join the book-burners.Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that theyever existed.
Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, aslong as any document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should bethe only censorship.Decency was put on a pedestal, along with the idea of theperfect nuclear family that was conveyed through popular sitcoms, such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet(Rosen, 2016). Any behavior that would deviate from the norms was strictlyfrowned upon, especially due to the Red Scare and Lavender Scare. And there wasvirtually no discussion on (homo)sexuality until the Kinsey Reports – two bookson human sexual behavior that shocked the nation, yet immediately becamebestsellers.
The society had its fair share of anxieties, which no doubt provedto be significant in the cultural status and reception of both Lolita and Catcher in the Rye.Lolita’s 1955 debut was obscure at best. After being rejected byfive American publishers, it was eventually published in Paris by Olympia Press– a publisher known for its bold sexual content. Though Field (1967, p. 336)described it as “probably the most chaste book ever printed by Olympia,” thenovel became banned in France in 1956 and it did not cross the Atlantic until1958. The first one to draw attention to it was novelist Graham Greene, whobranded it as one of the best books of 1955. It then immediately became the subjectof a controversial debate that has still not subsided; it garnered immediatecritical acclaim and the novel also received the scholarly edition The Annotated Lolita, which was the”first annotated edition of a modern novel to be published in the lifetime ofits author” (2000, Clegg).
Surprisingly, critics at first tended to focus onits literary value and effectively ignored Humbert’s sexual misconduct and theaccusations of obscenity, which shows that sexuality was still largely a tabootopic. Though the topic of sexual abuse and pedophilia was not unprecedented inliterature it is still often overlooked (just how most scholars ignored thepedophilia in Thomas Mann’s Death inVenice), as it causes us uncomfortableness and shame – the Foreword’s meresuggestion of the fact that 12 percent of adult men share Humbert’s conditionwould send shivers down anyone’s spine. Additionally, Lolita was castigated as being anti-American, which proves that itwas not in line with America’s values at the time – this also caused Nabokovthe most amount of anguish, since Lolitabeing “anti-American pains me considerably more than the idiotic accusation ofimmorality” (1989, p.
315).Meanwhile, Salinger’sThe Catcher in the Rye had similar problems before its publication, as thechairman of Harcourt, Brace & Co. turned it down because “the kid Holdenis disturbed. ..
I felt that I had to show it to the textbook department”(Itzkoff, 2010). Deviation from normality was not welcome, and the non-existentdiscussion on mental illness and sexuality made Salinger’s only novel quite arisk for publishers. Nevertheless, it was published by Little, Brown andCompany and received mixed reviews at first. There were a lot of distinctlyfavorable reviews, such as Clifton Fadiman’s: “That rare miracle of fiction hasagain come to pass: a human being has been created out of ink, paper, and theimagination” (1951); and The New YorkTimes’ Nash K. Burger declared it “an unusually brilliant first novel”(1951), however, not all critics shared a high level of enthusiasm for thenovel. Jones (1951) accused it of being “predictable and boring”, with othersfocusing on its obscenity and authentic colloquial style. The usage of wordslike ‘fuck’ and ‘goddamn’ manage to raise quite a lot of eyebrows after itsinitial publication – and it is only one of the reasons why the novel keepsgetting removed from high school curriculums and libraries. Some declared itunsuitable for children due to its disturbing content, such as the mention ofsuicide, prostitution, premarital sex, and alcoholism, and because it did notrelay the expected family values at the time.
The combination of vulgar scenesand obscene language did not meet everyone’s expectations, whereas Lolita was almost unanimously praisedfor its aesthetic style and its much more offensive content was largelyignored; it seems that the selectiveness of literary critics is yet to be fullyexplained here.Besides the controversy surrounding the content, the iconicnovels have another emblematic matter in common – the theme of adolescence. Thecoming-of-age narrative has its roots in the bildungsroman, the classic examplebeing Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’sApprenticeship, and has since been a theme in many literary masterpieces;yet Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye adopt two significantly contrastingapproaches to it.
The Catcher in the Rye’sHolden fancies himself as a modern-day Peter Pan and wants to save all theinnocent children from the onerous burden of adulthood. When one of hisconversations with his sister Phoebe leads to a discussion on his future,Holden reveals what he wants to do:Thousands of little kids,and nobody’s around–nobody big, I mean–except me. And I’m standing on the edgeof some crazy cliff.
.. I have to catch everybody if they start to go overthe cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going Ihave to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day.(Salinger, 1991, p. 173)Holden views kids as the height of innocence and wants toprevent them from growing up by being their protector. For example, when Holdenvisits Phoebe’s school and sees ‘Fuck you’ written on one of the walls, hewants to “kill whoever’d written it” (Salinger, 1991, p.
201). Convinced that acorrupted adult engraved it on the wall, his idealistic perception of childhoodprevents him from even considering the fact that perhaps the perpetrator wasone of Phoebe’s classmates. Holden’s distorted vision of children as the emblemof innocence no doubt stems from the traumatic loss of his younger brotherAllie, who passed away due to leukemia.
Not having fully processed Allie’spremature death, Holden sees the only possible solution in not growing up atall – his wish to stop time is one of the major reasons why the Museum ofNatural History appeals to him, as “everything stayed right where it was.Nobody’d move. .. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would bedifferent would be you.” (Salinger,1991, p. 121) But is there really such a thing as a clear line betweenchildhood and adulthood? Holden is not as much concerned with finding answersto his existential angst than he is with finding a way to escape theexpectations of society (e.
g. getting a good education, finding a prosperousand fulfilling career) – on his date with Sally, he suggests that the two ofthem should just run away and live in a cabin in Massachusetts and Vermont. Hestruggles with finding a place where he belongs – as all adolescents do; and Seelye(1991) then harshly suggests that death is the only way not to grow up, andthat “the book can be read as a lengthy suicide note with a blank space at theend to sign your name”.
Although this novel did not generate the so-called”Werther effect”, it did manage to spawn controversy due to a small amount offanatical readers.Meanwhile, Lolita’s Humbertis also obsessed with youth, which, as he himself points out, probably startedwith Annabel Leigh – his teenage lover who suffered an early death. Just likeHolden with Allie’s death, Humbert did not recover from Annabel’s death and thetrauma never subsided. Yet this is where all comparisons end, due to his sexualobsession with ‘nymphets’ – “between the age limits of nine and fourteen thereoccur maidens who .. reveal their true nature which is not human, butnymphic” (Nabokov, 1995, p. 16).
Humbert portrays ‘nymphets’ as mysticalcreatures, deprives them of humanity and believes that they have an expirationdate; he finds his perfect ‘nymphet’ in Lolita and his paradoxical wish toprotect her only ends up getting shattered by himself. He forbids her frommeeting boys her age and does not want the circumference of her thighs toexceed 17 and a half inches – he wants her to fit his idealistic and ‘innocent’view of youth, just as Holden wants to save all children from falling off thecliff, while Humbert’s own actions corrupt Lolita to the core. Not only does hedeprive her of a carefree childhood, but he also completely quells Lolita’s ownvoice – “it was always my habit and method to ignore Lolita’s states of mindwhile comforting my own base self” (Nabokov, 1991, p. 287). His obsession withLolita prevents him from acknowledging her as a real person, and he does notwant his reverie to end – “Let them play around me forever. Never grow up.”(Nabokov, 1991, p.
21) – nevertheless, his romantic view of youth and his ownchildhood later turn out to be Lolita’s and his own undoing. Is Lolita then perhaps a cautionary tale,or is there something more to discover? Interestingly, some literary criticshave assumed that Nabokov purposefully subverted the idea of the child as aromantic myth, but the author himself heavily disagreed with thisinterpretation (Pifer, 2003, p. 89). Whether the author’s opinion has any valuein the postmodern era is yet to be defended.Both Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye entered theliterary world more than 60 years ago, yet they were never buried by the sandsof time. Lolita, specifically, hasbecome engrained in Western culture, managing to lead an existence separatefrom the literary bubble.
For example, Merriam-Webster3(2018) defines ‘Lolita’ as “a precociously seductive girl” with no reference toNabokov’s novel – of course, excluding the etymological entry. Though Humbertdid at ‘state’ that she seduced him,what does it say about our society that ‘Lolita’ entered our vocabulary throughhis distorted vision, and Humbert’s atrocities were simply forgotten? Why is Humbertnot another word for pervert? If anything, Lolita was America’s patient zerowhen it comes to the overt sexualization of young girls – just some months ago,W Magazine declared Millie Bobby Brown, a 13-year-old actress, as one of thesexiest TV stars4.Moreover, the eponymous novel often serves as inspiration for artists like Lanadel Rey, who use the misconstrued image of Lolita in their songs – one of themis even titled “Lolita”, using lyrics such as ‘kissing my fruit punch lips inthe bright sunshine’, ‘I make the boys fall like dominoes’, ‘no more skippingrope’. This is the tragic legacy of Dolores Haze. Similarly, The Catcher in the Rye has also sufferedfrom highly publicized misinterpretation – the most known one being the case ofJohn Lennon’s murderer, who claimed that the novel was his statement for the murder’sjustification, and was even seen reading the novel at the crime scene beforethe arrival of the police. The cruel abuse of art for one’s own sadisticpurposes sadly put the controversial novel in the limelight again, though thisis not the first time in history that someone’s ideas were misinterpreted bymisguided people – e.
g. Nietzsche’s ideas have suffered through this onmultiple occasions. And thus, parents who want to ban the novel from theirchildren’s school libraries have yet another distorted reason to denounce thebook as a bad influence; there are even multiple articles online that discusswhether Salinger’s novel is an assassination trigger. Yet the contentiousdebate surrounding it does prove that the issues it addresses are still farfrom resolved – one should not expect to read Lolita or Catcher in the Ryefor simple escapism or a sense of complacency.Both novels are pivotal writings of the 20thcentury; the combination of critical acclaim and controversy surrounding themhas granted them a permanent place not just in literary history, but in Westernculture.
They both addressed considerable taboos at the time (e. g. sexuality)and featured non-conformist values, which 1950s America wanted to silence atthe time. Taking into account the literary tradition, both narratives also establishthe importance of one’s formative years and how their perception can have asubstantial influence on one’s future. As readers, we share the protagonists’journey through disillusionment and relate to them although we do not want to –what scares the reader the most is perhaps that we all have a bit of Holden andHumbert in us.
That is why both novels have an odd effect on people and whysome just cannot cope with the fact that they might be able to relate to anangsty teenager or a middle-aged pedophile, however, banning a novel is only ashort-term solution and does not help anyone. In the case of Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye, their cultural influence has reached so farthat banning them could only be possible by reimagining an entire society – onewhere John Lennon is still alive and where Lolita is just an obscure town inTexas.1Available at: http://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels/2 Available at: http://entertainment.time.com/2005/10/16/all-time-100-novels/slide/all/ 3 Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Lolita 4 Available at: http://www.popbuzz.com/tv-film/stranger-things/millie-bobby-brown-sexiest-tv-stars-and-like/