The Mark of the Immature Man Is That He Wants To Die Nobly for a Cause, While the Mark of the Mature Man Is That He Wants To Live Humbly for One

J. D. Salinger? Wilhelm Stekel? Otto Ludwig? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger is a popular work embodying adolescent angst and confusion. During one scene a teacher of the protagonist Holden Caulfield gives him a remarkable quotation ascribed to a psychoanalyst named Wilhelm Stekel. Has anyone attempted to trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: The provenance of the quotation remained mysterious for decades. In 2013 retired Professor of English Peter G. Beidler published “The Sources of the Stekel Quotation in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye” in “ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews”. 1 Beidler found a match for the quotation written in German by the dramatist and novelist Otto Ludwig. Many years after the statement was crafted, the Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Stekel quoted the words while crediting Ludwig. Salinger’s novel contained a rephrased instance of Ludwig’s statement credited to Stekel.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

An 1891 German edition of the collected writings of Otto Ludwig included a novella titled “Maria”. The introduction of the work stated that it was written in the autumn and winter of 1842 although it was not published at that time. The eccentric plot hinged on an episode of lovemaking by a somnambulist. The target quotation appeared as follows. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

Das Höchste, wozu er sich erheben konnte, war, für etwas rühmlich zu sterben; jetzt erhebt er sich zu dem Größern, für etwas ruhmlos zu leben.

Here is one possible translation to English:

The highest that he could rise to then was to die gloriously for something; now he rises to the greater, to live humbly for something.

The 1912 book “Zentralblatt für Psychoanalyse und Psychotherapie” (“Central Journal of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy”) included a chapter by Dr. Wilhelm Stekel which contained a long excerpt from Otto Ludwig who was acknowledged. The target quotation was nearly identical. “Größern” was replaced by “Grössten”. 3

The 1925 book “An Outline of Psychoanalysis” contained a version of Stekel’s essay translated into English by Dr. James S. Van Teslaar. Stekel spoke of the need to inspire humility in some patients with ill-conceived grandiose visions. Stekel prefaced the words of Ludwig with the following remark: 4

I may illustrate this generalization by a quotation from the thoughts of Otto Ludwig. The creative writer knows what we physicians were for a long time ignorant of.

The target quotation was rendered as follows:

“His highest ideal was at first to die gloriously for something; now his ideal is the supreme one: to live humbly for something.”

In 1951 J. D. Salinger published “The Catcher in the Rye”. The teenage protagonist Holden Caulfield described the character Mr. Antolini as “about the best teacher I ever had”. The pair visited together in New York, and Antolini expressed a fear that Caulfield might die nobly “for some highly unworthy cause.” To forestall that possibility he wrote a saying on a piece of paper and gave it to Caulfield: 5

Then he came back and sat down with the paper in his hand. “Oddly enough, this wasn’t written by a practicing poet. It was written by a psychoanalyst named Wilhelm Stekel. Here’s what he—Are you still with me?”

“Yes, sure I am.”

“Here’s what he said: ‘The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.’

In October 1951 a book reviewer in an Evansville, Indiana newspaper found the quotation in Salinger’s book memorable and reprinted a slightly compressed version: 6

The novel is full of good things, which Mr. Salinger drops tike nuggets along the way. A page of slang soiled by an occasional obscenity is followed by an aphorism of this quality: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mature man wants to live humbly for one.”

In 1987 the reference “The Wit and Wisdom of the 20th Century” compiled by Frank S. Pepper included the expression with an ascription to Stekel and a citation for Salinger: 7

The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.
Wilhelm Stekel. Quoted J. D. Salinger,

In conclusion, Otto Ludwig should receive credit for the German statement he wrote circa 1842. Wilhelm Stekel reprinted Ludwig’s statement with an acknowledgement by 1912. An English version appeared in “An Outline of Psychoanalysis” by 1925 with a Stekel byline and an attribution to Ludwig. In 1951 J. D. Salinger shared a version credited to Stekel that matched the German and English statements, but it also differed significantly.

Image Notes: Picture of a field of rye by Hans at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Brian S. whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to the individuals who helped me to access the 2013 citation.)


  1. 2013, ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews, Volume 26, Issue 2: Twentieth-Century American Literature, Article: The Sources of the Stekel Quotation in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Author: Peter G. Beidler, Start Page 71, End Page 75, Publisher: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group. (Accessed online at link
  2. 1891, Otto Ludwigs gesammelte schriften Author: Otto Ludwig, Volume 2, Novella: Maria, Start Page 539, Quote Page 596, Publisher: Fr. Wilh. Grunow, Leipzig, Germany. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1912 (Reprint 1964),Title: Zentralblatt für Psychoanalyse und Psychotherapie; (Central Journal of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy) Medizinische Monatsschrift für Seelenkunde, Schriftleiter (Editor): Dr. Wilhelm Stekel, Chapter: Die Ausgänge der psychoanalytischen Kuren, Author: Von Dr. Wilhelm Stekel, Wien, Start Page 175, Quote Page 188, Lizenznachdruck der Ausgabe J. F. Bergmann, Wiesbaden, Reprint Publisher: E. J. Bonset, Amsterdam. (Hathitrust Full View) link
  4. 1925, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Edited by J. S. Van Teslaar, The Final Results of Psychoanalytic Treatment by Dr. Wilhelm Stekel (Vienna), Translated by Dr. James S. Van Teslaar, Start Page 319, Quote Page 345, Modern Library: Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1978 (1951 Copyright), The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Quote Page 188, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1951 October 21, The Sunday Courier and Press (Evansville Press), Books Readers Like Best by William D. Patterson, Quote Page 12B, Column 7, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1987, The Wit and Wisdom of the 20th Century: A Dictionary of Quotations, Compiled by Frank S. Pepper, Topic: Maturity, Quote Page 240, Peter Bedrick Books, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)