Mental Health in the Mid-Twentieth Century
“Is Holden Caulfield supposed to be crazy?” So asked one publishing executive before rejecting J. D. Salinger’s manuscript for The Catcher in the Rye. Today, readers might infer that Holden must be suffering from some combination of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety. Holden himself references mental illness, trauma, and psychoanalysis. He refers to himself as a “madman,” and he confesses that his parents planned to have him “psychoanalyzed and all” after he broke the garage windows. Other characters also comment on Holden’s mental state. Carl Luce urges Holden to make an appointment with his father, a psychoanalyst, who could “help [him] to recognize the patterns of [his] mind.” Later, Mr. Antolini quotes Wilhelm Stekel, a noted twentieth-century psychoanalyst, when recommending that Holden think about his future. The novel’s references to mental illness aren’t restricted to the protagonist. Holden notes that his mother has been “very nervous” since Allie’s death.
To understand the context of discourse around mental health in the 1940s, it helps to know something about World War II and the growth of the field of psychiatry in its aftermath. Leading into the war, the U.S. military worked to prevent psychiatric issues by screening out recruits whose personalities exhibited certain red flags. Although1.8 million potential recruits were rejected, 1.2 million active-duty troops were still admitted to military hospitals during the war for psychological traumas. By contrast, only 680,000 troops were admitted to hospitals for physical injuries. At the time, what is now called PTSD was known as combat stress reaction, or, more colloquially, “battle fatigue.” The condition was not well understood, and some high-profile military leaders such as General George S. Patton dismissed it as imaginary. Even so, nearly half of the military personnel discharged during WWII were discharged due to psychological disorders.
Salinger himself was no stranger to wartime trauma and so-called battle fatigue. He wrote early drafts of The Catcher in the Rye while serving as a solder in WWII, and claimed to have stormed Utah Beach on D-Day with draft chapters of the novel in his pack. A few months later, Salinger’s division liberated the Dachau concentration camp. Shortly after Armistice Day, Salinger checked himself into a hospital in Nuremberg, Germany, out of concern for his mental stability. These experiences are reflected both indirectly in Holden’s mental state and more directly in the character of D.B., Holden’s older brother, a writer who served in the U.S. Army during WWII. As Holden recalls in Chapter 18, when D.B. would come home on furlough from the army, “all he did was lie on his bed, practically. He hardly ever even came in the living room.” In D.B., the reader glimpses a man suffering from the trauma of combat.
While Holden has no direct experience of war, he relays several experiences from his past that may indicate he is suffering from post-traumatic stress as well. Most important is the death of his brother, Allie. Holden also witnessed the immediate aftermath of his classmate, James Castle’s death: “his teeth, and blood, were all over the place.” He makes several suggestions of physical and sexual violence from the other boys at his school. Holden says that he can’t even tell us what the other boys did to James Castle – “it’s too repulsive.” He mentions that Carl Luce used to grope other boys in the hallways, and that Ernest Morrow would snap his wet towels at boys. The sexually-inflected sadism and cruelty of all-male boarding schools has been described by other writers such as George Orwell, and may inform Holden’s panic when he wakes to find Mr. Antolini stroking his hair: “when something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard.” Mr. Antolini may be behaving inappropriately, but it also possible that Holden, because of his experiences at Pencey and other prep schools, mistrusts physical contact.
Alongside advances in the understanding of mental health, the postwar period also saw changes in the understanding of sexuality. In 1948, Alfred Kinsey’s first book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was published. The Kinsey Report offered an array of statistics on masturbation (nearly 92 percent of men did it) and homosexuality (Kinsey claimed 10 percent of the population was gay) that shocked the American public. Statistics like these made behaviors that were previously considered “deviant” or “perverse” seem commonplace, even normal. For Holden, however, who believes the world is full of “perverts and morons,” a more expansive and accepting view of human sexuality is destabilizing. When he checks into the Edmont Hotel, he is both appalled and aroused by seeing a man dress in woman’s clothing and a man and a woman spitting mouthfuls of their drinks into each other’s faces. “I was probably the only normal bastard in the whole place—and that isn’t saying much,” Holden concludes. Although we can’t know whether Salinger was intentionally making a Freudian case for Holden’s mental instability, Holden’s turbulent mental state reflects a culture in flux.