Since the death of J.D. Salinger last week, there have been almost as many musings on the cover of The Catcher in the Rye, as there have been on the book itself. I’d say every designer, to a one (this one included), holds that maroon cover with the yellow type to be sacred, and it is spoken of with a reverence normally reserved for Helvetica and white space.
Back in 2004, Michael Bierut wrote in Design Observer:
"The Catcher in the Rye has the power to move me like few other pieces of graphic design."
Steven Heller in today’s Daily Heller:
"Times and images have changed since 1951. For me, however, reflecting on Mr. Salinger's passing, The Catcher in the Rye will always be that unadorned maroon cover with yellow type. "
Henry Sene Yee in Design Related:
"A perfect marriage of content, form and memories. The cover demands that you fill in the rest yourself."
For me, that cover was so singular, that I never understood why magazines or newspapers would show the cream and red cover with an illustration of a horse, when writing about the book. I always wondered why they just didn’t run the real cover. Even when I finally realized that the illustrated cover must be how the book was originally published, I still felt that the maroon cover was more emblematic of the book. I was sure it wasn't just me who conjured the maroon cover, when they thought about the book. How could I be?
As Baby Boomers, that was the one we all had. That’s the one we all read. Sometime after the hardback and the pulp paperback editions were published, Salinger inserted a design clause in his contracts preventing the use of images of any kind on his covers--just the book’s title and his name were allowed. That maroon cover was ubiquitous because there were no other competing images! Unless your parents had an early edition lying around the house (mine certainly did not), how would you even know about a previous cover?
The illustrated cover might have been the original, but I think an entire (very large) generation knows which cover the real one is.
Here are a few other high-school classics, the originals of which, at the time, I was completely unaware. The original cover is on the left. The cover of my experience is on the right.
See 75 different covers of The Catcher in the Rye here.
See 60 different covers of 1984 here.