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Catcher In The Rye Vs. Huckleberry Finn Essay, Research Paper

J. D. Salinger?s Catcher in the Rye Compared to Mark Twain?s Huckleberry Finn

All famous American authors have written novels using a variety of characters, plots, and settings to illustrate important themes. Throughout literary history many of the same themes have been stressed in different novels. In J. D. Salinger?s The Catcher in the Rye and Mark Twain?s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, each author writes about the common theme of coming of age. The two novels were written more than half a century apart about two boys who seem like complete opposites, yet they bear striking resemblances to each other. Each author wrote his book depicting settings from his own past and based the plots on personal experiences. While the two novels are in different times and places, they have remarkably similar characters, plots, and themes.

To completely understand the two novels, it is necessary to know about each author?s background and how he got the ideas to write them. J. D. Salinger was born on January 1, 1919 in New York City. His father was a Jewish importer, his mother a Scott-Irish housewife, and he had one older sister. His parents were divorced in September 1947 before he began his career as an author. He grew up in Manhattan and attended public school until he was enrolled in Valley Forge Military Academy, where he had trouble adjusting. Later he attended New York University, Ursinus College, and Columbia University. Before he became a writer he worked as an entertainer on a Swedish cruise ship in the Caribbean and had a four-year military career as a staff sergeant in World War II (?Salinger? CA 332-334).

Salinger began writing popularly in the late 1940?s and 50?s in the Post-Modernist period. Authors of this period showed despair, paranoia, and irrational violence due to threatening implications of the world after WWII. In this era, Salinger wrote his most creative works such as Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories. These books show the dilemma of people trying to come to terms with either a self-created or contemporary hell with a common theme of coming of age or loss of innocence. Recurring incidents of adulterated emotion can be seen in many of Salinger?s works, and he believes that is ?the history of human trouble and the poetry of love? which explains many controversial events in his works (?Salinger? CA 334-335). In most of his works, it is obvious that Salinger wrote about his background and personal experiences although he never dealt with adultery. Most of his fictional characters grew up in New York and were of mixed parentage. For example, Holden Caulfield, the main character in The Catcher in the Rye, grew up in New York City and had a hard time adjusting to life at school. Also, Pencey Prep, the school Holden went to, was modeled from Valley Forge Military Academy (?Salinger? CA 333).

Salinger?s work was very controversial, especially his characters and his language. Some critics concentrate on his characters, saying that the heroes in his works are self-righteous and self-centered misfits, indicating immaturity in Salinger?s vision. He also brought back the concept of vernacular dialect and idiomatic phrases previously unused in American literature but popular in everyday speech. Some critics object to his use of foul language, while others feel that his use of speech is a brilliant technique to help shape his theme. James Miller says he is one of the most controversial writers yet, and he is greeted with praise as well as condemnation (?Salinger? CLC Vol. 1 299).

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri in 1835 to Marshall Clemens and Jane Lampton. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, a frontier town, where he got his richest sources for his writing. Between 1853 and 1857 he was a journeyman printer in St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia, and other places around the U.S. In 1857 he went to the Mississippi River, became a river pilot?s apprentice and won his license shortly afterward. He piloted until 1861 when the Civil War broke out, and he served in the Confederacy for a short period of time. In 1862 he was released from the army and became a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in Nevada where he discovered that he was quite the humorist. He took the pen name Mark Twain from riverboat terms in 1863 and worked for newspapers until 1869 when some of his stories were collected, revised, and published. In 1870 he married Olivia Langdon and began writing books and novels. He wrote many classics such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Gilded Age. However, he went bankrupt in 1894 because of bad investments, and became pessimistic in his work (?Samuel Langhorne Clemens? 1-2).

Salinger and Twain lead similar lives and used similar techniques in writing style. Salinger?s Catcher in the Rye and Twain?s Huckleberry Finn have much in common just as Salinger and Twain did in their lives. Both novels use a first person narrator, vernacular, and autobiographical settings, but the most significant similarity is the common theme of coming of age or loss of innocence. Both main characters are adolescents, runaways from society, seeking independence, growth, and stability in their lives (Lamazoff 1).

Published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye was the first of Salinger?s works to catch the reader?s eye and help him gain popularity. Holden Caulfield?s rebellion against fake people or ?phonies? shows the rejection of some adult qualities, leading into the major themes: innocence and coming of age (?Salinger? CA 332). The plot is not very extravagant, but Salinger used many other aspects to convey his point. After Holden was kicked out of Pencey Prep he was planning to head west and start over, but he first went to New York City to say good-bye to his little sister, Phoebe. During his time in New York he participated in humorous events involving an acquaintance, some nuns, a prostitute, a cross dresser, and an admired teacher each with their own message helping Holden realize his false dreams. Holden said he wanted to be like a catcher in the rye to keep all the children, symbolizing innocence, from falling off of the cliff, symbolizing coming of age. This is a gesture of selfless love coming from his confusion and grief (?Salinger? CA 336).

Holden is a double-minded, self-critical, frantic adolescent making his first movement into the adult world, and he realizes that the values of the world can be judged as stated by David Galloway (?Salinger? CLC Vol. 3 445). Frederick Gwynn and Joseph Boltner believe Holden?s quest was to preserve an innocence that is in danger of disappearing. This is the innocence of a spotless childhood in the ordinary involvements of life. First he rebelled against society, then he was inspired by his honesty against phoniness, and he finally realized what a small role he actually played (?Salinger? CLC Vol. 1 295). Harvey Breit says Holden figured this out in the climax of the novel when Phoebe, Holden?s ten-year-old sister that he wants to keep pure and innocent, was riding the carousel in Central Park. He watched in the rain and his dream shattered because he could do nothing to prevent any coming of age, and at this is the time Holden passed into adulthood (?Salinger? CLC Vol. 56 318). The irony of this story is that Holden could not even prevent himself from ?falling off the cliff? much less save others (?Salinger? CA 336).

Mark Twain?s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1884 shortly almost ten years after its prelude The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (?Samuel Langhorne Clemens? 2). The setting of this novel is on the Mississippi River, where Twain once lived, and the plot of this story is like the rural version of Catcher in the Rye. Huck escaped from his father and took a raft down the river along with a black slave, Jim, trying to reach their freedom. Along this journey Huck and Jim encountered many controversies such as the Grangerford/Shepherdson feud, the king and duke, and the events on the Phelps farm. Walter Allen wrote that much like Holden Caulfield, first Huck rebelled against his society, then he was inspired by his honesty against sham, and finally he gained a sympathetic awareness of his melancholy role in life. Huck?s attitude toward coming of age was ambiguous; he intervened in the activities of the adult world and made moral choices that repudiated that world (?Salinger? CLC Vol. 1 298).

In John Aldrigde?s comparison he wrote that both books rely on the concept of innocence to show how their main characters reach their coming of age. In The Catcher in the Rye innocence is a compound of urban intelligence, juvenile contempt, and New Yorker sentimentality. The symbol of innocence in this book is the children of the world, especially Phoebe, which are continuously challenged by ?phonies?, profanity, and adult life. In this novel, innocence calls for genuineness and sincerity in a dull and loveless world. In Huckleberry Finn, innocence is a compound of frontier ignorance, juvenile delinquency, and petty heroism. The symbols of innocence are the raft and the river. The challenging factors of innocence in this book are thugs, thieves, feuds, and other dangers on shore that call for narrow escapes. The raft represents innocence because that is how Huck and Jim make their narrow escapes from the dangers of the shore, and the river because its time, faith, and continuity, move endlessly and dependably beside and between the temporary problems of men. In Huck Finn, innocence calls for escape from violence because innocence and the world of violence are seriously and effectively opposed (?Salinger? CLC Vol. 56 323).

When Huck headed down the river with Jim to seek freedom, he was actually seeking a new home free from the injustices of his old life. Just like Huck, Holden too was seeking a new ?home? where he could have a life without the pain and disillusionment that comes with becoming involved with anything life has to offer. Both Huck and Holden encountered tests for them to pass on their way to adulthood. For Huck the tests were mostly physical, but the tests that Holden had to overcome were primarily metaphorical dangers created by the loss of individuality, accepted values, and self-reliant intellectuality (Branch ?Mark Twain and J. D. Salinger? 3).

Not only are the two books similar in their themes, but they also share other common writing devices. They have similar comic irony, informal language, picaresque structure, anti-phony themes, and both boys represent the average American boy at different times (Branch ?Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait? 5). S. N. Behrman wrote that Holden and Huck are neither comical, nor are they marked by hatred or contempt of mankind; they just repudiate mankind?s faults. They always pay attention to what is happening whether involved or not. The two novels are one-way journeys from holy innocence to the enlightenment that the world offers. Both works are concerned with the problems that people were facing at the times they were written. And finally, they both have been repeatedly banned and restricted because of the use of questionable language that people use in everyday speech (?Salinger? CLC Vol. 56 321).

The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have strikingly similar plots, characters, and themes even though they were written in different time periods and settings. Their primary similarity is the resemblance between Huck and Holden as they lose their youthful innocence and grow up. Huck tries to escape injustice to gain freedom floating down the Mississippi River on his raft, and Holden tries to escape the ?phoniness? he found in the adult world to gain a pleasant life. Both boys realize in the end that they play minor roles in life and loss of innocence is inevitable in the emergence of adulthood. In J. D. Salinger?s The Catcher in the Rye and Mark Twain?s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn both authors stress the themes of coming of age and loss of innocence to prove the point that everyone grows up and passes into adulthood. They show that this is a natural and unavoidable part of life.


Branch, Edgar. ?Mark Twain and J. D. Salinger: A Study in Literary Continuity.? Literary

Review Sep. 1992: 32-33.

—. ?Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait.? Literary Review Aug. 1992: 33.

Lamazoff, Eric. ?The Praises and Criticisms of J. D. Salinger?s The Catcher in the Rye.? 1996.

(13 April 2000).

?Salinger, J(erome) D(avid).? Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol. 39. 1992.

?—.? Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 1. 1973.

?—.? Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 3. 1973.

?—.? Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 56. 1973.

?Samuel Langhorne Clemens a.k.a. Mark Twain 1835-1910.?

(15 April 2000).

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