Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The missing The

Years before I joined the copy desk at the News Journal in Mansfield, Ohio, I overheard a discussion (more accurately, an argument) over the title of J.D. Salinger's greatest book. Eileen, the chief copy editor, insisted the correct title was Catcher in the Rye, not The Catcher in the Rye. Other copy editors disagreed. This was long before it became possible to simply find a cover of the book on the Web to quickly settle the debate, but I went home that night and located my paperback copy. Later I quietly informed Eileen that the title of the novel is The Catcher in the Rye, and the argument was settled, even if not for all times and in all places.

When I watched the documentary on Salinger on PBS a few weeks ago, I noticed that about half the time his novel was called The Catcher in the Rye and about half the time it was just Catcher in the Rye. The novel is mentioned several times in A Passion for Books, a collection of essays, lists and even cartoons on the subject of literature. In an essay about the Book-of-the-Month Club, Al Silverman calls it Catcher in the Rye. So do the book's editors, Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan, when they list the 15 books they would want to memorize in a Fahrenheit 451 kind of world. In the Modern Library list of the 20th century's best novels in English, the title has the The. It also does in Jonathan Yardley's list of 10 books that shaped American character.

I have no idea why this particular book, more so than most others with a title that begin with The, has generated so much confusion. It is certainly not the only one, however. Is the correct title of Mark Twain's greatest novel Huckleberry Finn or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Actually it is neither. The original title was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even though Twain's companion novel is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In this case, however, you can't look at a copy of the book to settle the matter because some editions of the novel have the The and some don't.

Then there's the question of whether Herman Melville's greatest novel has a hyphen or not. Is it Moby-Dick or Moby Dick? Again, you can find it both ways on book covers. It properly has the hyphen. Actually, the correct title is Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Hardly anyone uses the full title, however. Copy editors may be sticklers for accuracy, but there are limits.

At one time it was the fashion for novels to have very long titles such as The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates. I am quite willing to call Daniel Defoe's book simply Robinson Crusoe, even while insisting upon The Catcher in the Rye.

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