Vladimir That should be the only censorship. Decency was

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: Great Yet
Controversial Icons

Salinger and Nabokov are most widely known just for one of
their works, namely The Catcher in the
Rye and Lolita, and both novels regularly
appear on lists such as Modern Library’s “100
Best Novels”1
and Time Magazine’s “All-Time 100
Novels”2.  Published in the 1950s, they are both some of
my personal favorite books, and in this essay, I will attempt to discover why
they are so iconic and where they might be iconoclastic. The structure of my
essay is thus divided into three topics: I will firstly compare their critical
reception at their initial release and provide additional context on America in
the 1950s; I will then move on to the pervading theme of adolescence and
discuss how differently it is presented; and in my last part I will focus on
the afterlife of the two novels – not just in the literary world, but in
Western culture in general.

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America in the 1950s was very much a conservative society
and in 1953, after 20 years of Democratic rule, the Republican candidate Dwight
Eisenhower won the presidential election and later that year made an important
speech at Dartmouth regarding censorship:

Don’t join the book-burners.
Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they
ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as
long as any document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be
the only censorship.

Decency was put on a pedestal, along with the idea of the
perfect 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 strictly
frowned upon, especially due to the Red Scare and Lavender Scare. And there was
virtually no discussion on (homo)sexuality until the Kinsey Reports – two books
on human sexual behavior that shocked the nation, yet immediately became
bestsellers. The society had its fair share of anxieties, which no doubt proved
to 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 by
five 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,” the
novel became banned in France in 1956 and it did not cross the Atlantic until
1958. The first one to draw attention to it was novelist Graham Greene, who
branded it as one of the best books of 1955. It then immediately became the subject
of a controversial debate that has still not subsided; it garnered immediate
critical 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 of
its author” (2000, Clegg). Surprisingly, critics at first tended to focus on
its literary value and effectively ignored Humbert’s sexual misconduct and the
accusations of obscenity, which shows that sexuality was still largely a taboo
topic. Though the topic of sexual abuse and pedophilia was not unprecedented in
literature it is still often overlooked (just how most scholars ignored the
pedophilia in Thomas Mann’s Death in
Venice), as it causes us uncomfortableness and shame – the Foreword’s mere
suggestion of the fact that 12 percent of adult men share Humbert’s condition
would send shivers down anyone’s spine. Additionally, Lolita was castigated as being anti-American, which proves that it
was not in line with America’s values at the time – this also caused Nabokov
the most amount of anguish, since Lolita
being “anti-American pains me considerably more than the idiotic accusation of
immorality” (1989, p. 315).

Meanwhile, Salinger’s
The Catcher in the Rye had similar problems before its publication, as the
chairman of Harcourt, Brace & Co. turned it down because “the kid Holden
is disturbed. .. I felt that I had to show it to the textbook department”
(Itzkoff, 2010). Deviation from normality was not welcome, and the non-existent
discussion on mental illness and sexuality made Salinger’s only novel quite a
risk for publishers. Nevertheless, it was published by Little, Brown and
Company and received mixed reviews at first. There were a lot of distinctly
favorable reviews, such as Clifton Fadiman’s: “That rare miracle of fiction has
again come to pass: a human being has been created out of ink, paper, and the
imagination” (1951); and The New York
Times’ Nash K. Burger declared it “an unusually brilliant first novel”
(1951), however, not all critics shared a high level of enthusiasm for the
novel. Jones (1951) accused it of being “predictable and boring”, with others
focusing on its obscenity and authentic colloquial style. The usage of words
like ‘fuck’ and ‘goddamn’ manage to raise quite a lot of eyebrows after its
initial publication – and it is only one of the reasons why the novel keeps
getting removed from high school curriculums and libraries. Some declared it
unsuitable for children due to its disturbing content, such as the mention of
suicide, prostitution, premarital sex, and alcoholism, and because it did not
relay the expected family values at the time. The combination of vulgar scenes
and obscene language did not meet everyone’s expectations, whereas Lolita was almost unanimously praised
for its aesthetic style and its much more offensive content was largely
ignored; it seems that the selectiveness of literary critics is yet to be fully
explained here.

Besides the controversy surrounding the content, the iconic
novels have another emblematic matter in common – the theme of adolescence. The
coming-of-age narrative has its roots in the bildungsroman, the classic example
being Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s
Apprenticeship, and has since been a theme in many literary masterpieces;
yet Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye adopt two significantly contrasting
approaches to it. The Catcher in the Rye’s
Holden fancies himself as a modern-day Peter Pan and wants to save all the
innocent children from the onerous burden of adulthood. When one of his
conversations 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 edge
of some crazy cliff. .. I have to catch everybody if they start to go over
the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I
have 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 to
prevent them from growing up by being their protector. For example, when Holden
visits Phoebe’s school and sees ‘Fuck you’ written on one of the walls, he
wants to “kill whoever’d written it” (Salinger, 1991, p. 201). Convinced that a
corrupted adult engraved it on the wall, his idealistic perception of childhood
prevents him from even considering the fact that perhaps the perpetrator was
one of Phoebe’s classmates. Holden’s distorted vision of children as the emblem
of innocence no doubt stems from the traumatic loss of his younger brother
Allie, who passed away due to leukemia. Not having fully processed Allie’s
premature death, Holden sees the only possible solution in not growing up at
all – his wish to stop time is one of the major reasons why the Museum of
Natural History appeals to him, as “everything stayed right where it was.
Nobody’d move. .. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be
different would be you.” (Salinger,
1991, p. 121) But is there really such a thing as a clear line between
childhood and adulthood? Holden is not as much concerned with finding answers
to his existential angst than he is with finding a way to escape the
expectations of society (e. g. getting a good education, finding a prosperous
and fulfilling career) – on his date with Sally, he suggests that the two of
them should just run away and live in a cabin in Massachusetts and Vermont. He
struggles 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, and
that “the book can be read as a lengthy suicide note with a blank space at the
end 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 of
fanatical readers.

Meanwhile, Lolita’s Humbert
is also obsessed with youth, which, as he himself points out, probably started
with Annabel Leigh – his teenage lover who suffered an early death. Just like
Holden with Allie’s death, Humbert did not recover from Annabel’s death and the
trauma never subsided. Yet this is where all comparisons end, due to his sexual
obsession with ‘nymphets’ – “between the age limits of nine and fourteen there
occur maidens who .. reveal their true nature which is not human, but
nymphic” (Nabokov, 1995, p. 16). Humbert portrays ‘nymphets’ as mystical
creatures, deprives them of humanity and believes that they have an expiration
date; he finds his perfect ‘nymphet’ in Lolita and his paradoxical wish to
protect her only ends up getting shattered by himself. He forbids her from
meeting boys her age and does not want the circumference of her thighs to
exceed 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 the
cliff, while Humbert’s own actions corrupt Lolita to the core. Not only does he
deprive her of a carefree childhood, but he also completely quells Lolita’s own
voice – “it was always my habit and method to ignore Lolita’s states of mind
while comforting my own base self” (Nabokov, 1991, p. 287). His obsession with
Lolita prevents him from acknowledging her as a real person, and he does not
want 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 own
childhood 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 critics
have assumed that Nabokov purposefully subverted the idea of the child as a
romantic myth, but the author himself heavily disagreed with this
interpretation (Pifer, 2003, p. 89). Whether the author’s opinion has any value
in the postmodern era is yet to be defended.

Both Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye entered the
literary world more than 60 years ago, yet they were never buried by the sands
of time. Lolita, specifically, has
become engrained in Western culture, managing to lead an existence separate
from the literary bubble. For example, Merriam-Webster3
(2018) defines ‘Lolita’ as “a precociously seductive girl” with no reference to
Nabokov’s novel – of course, excluding the etymological entry. Though Humbert
did at ‘state’ that she seduced him,
what does it say about our society that ‘Lolita’ entered our vocabulary through
his distorted vision, and Humbert’s atrocities were simply forgotten? Why is Humbert
not another word for pervert? If anything, Lolita was America’s patient zero
when 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 the
sexiest TV stars4.
Moreover, the eponymous novel often serves as inspiration for artists like Lana
del Rey, who use the misconstrued image of Lolita in their songs – one of them
is even titled “Lolita”, using lyrics such as ‘kissing my fruit punch lips in
the bright sunshine’, ‘I make the boys fall like dominoes’, ‘no more skipping
rope’. This is the tragic legacy of Dolores Haze. Similarly, The Catcher in the Rye has also suffered
from highly publicized misinterpretation – the most known one being the case of
John Lennon’s murderer, who claimed that the novel was his statement for the murder’s
justification, and was even seen reading the novel at the crime scene before
the arrival of the police. The cruel abuse of art for one’s own sadistic
purposes sadly put the controversial novel in the limelight again, though this
is not the first time in history that someone’s ideas were misinterpreted by
misguided people – e. g. Nietzsche’s ideas have suffered through this on
multiple occasions. And thus, parents who want to ban the novel from their
children’s school libraries have yet another distorted reason to denounce the
book as a bad influence; there are even multiple articles online that discuss
whether Salinger’s novel is an assassination trigger. Yet the contentious
debate surrounding it does prove that the issues it addresses are still far
from resolved – one should not expect to read Lolita or Catcher in the Rye
for simple escapism or a sense of complacency.

Both novels are pivotal writings of the 20th
century; the combination of critical acclaim and controversy surrounding them
has granted them a permanent place not just in literary history, but in Western
culture. They both addressed considerable taboos at the time (e. g. sexuality)
and featured non-conformist values, which 1950s America wanted to silence at
the time. Taking into account the literary tradition, both narratives also establish
the importance of one’s formative years and how their perception can have a
substantial 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 and
Humbert in us. That is why both novels have an odd effect on people and why
some just cannot cope with the fact that they might be able to relate to an
angsty teenager or a middle-aged pedophile, however, banning a novel is only a
short-term solution and does not help anyone. In the case of Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye, their cultural influence has reached so far
that banning them could only be possible by reimagining an entire society – one
where John Lennon is still alive and where Lolita is just an obscure town in
Texas.

1
Available 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/