On the passing of J.D. Salinger
An Idiom roundtable, so it seems.
Alice Gregory: By this point, thanks to his own mythologizing, Salinger seems more like a celebrity than an author to me, and like the death of so many celebrities, his seems anti-climactic, not only because of his age and reclusiveness, but also because being that famous amounts to not really being alive in the minds of others.
I’m certainly not one to mourn Salinger’s death. His work never really resonated with me all that much – 9 Stories more than Catcher and Franny, but still, I was never able to locate his “genius.” There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how Catcher should be read as a grief narrative, which I think may be correct. I never found Holden’s (now proverbial) angst at all enlightening or nuanced. I much prefer A Separate Peace, for instance. Despite what many people lament, I actually think that the cultural products disseminated from Salinger’s work are excellent, perhaps to the point of magnifying his greatness in retrospect (all those prep school movies: Igby Goes Down, The Graduate even).
I will admit to appreciating his ability to perfectly capture a now-long-gone East Coast world (toggle coats, mid-century hotels, The Museum of Natural History). Coming from California, it always seems exotic, platonic, and totally worth striving to find or recreate (cue Vampire Weekend comparison?). But Cheever (Goodbye, My Brother and The Swimmer, eg) and Updike (A&P, eg) do this too, and much better. By writing from the perspective of an adolescent, he gives voice to readers who are in their most formative stage. It’s not a trick, but I think it lends his writing a gravitas that should be attributed more to the 14-year-old reader than to Salinger himself.
Stephen Squibb: I absolutely agree about the adolescent source of Salinger’s gravitas.
I remember hearing about the book long before reading it. There was this girl on the playground in elementary school that was always breaking news bulletins about the adult world. A sort of town crier for the future. These were mostly inappropriate things she seemed to have picked up from her hippie father after or during her parent’s divorce. One of them, however, was the profound significance of The Catcher in the Rye. I don’t remember what she said about it, exactly, only that it was conveyed with that peculiar combination of energy and ignorance proper to a certain species of know-it-all fifth grader. In any case, I sought the thing out and read it with a mixture of disappointment and confusion.
I still feel that way, to a certain extent, even after multiple revisits. Reading Catcher is like wearing someone else’s glasses, curious at first and not entirely pleasant; a strong prescription. That said, there are several moments in the text that I remember vividly. Ackley, the disgusting pimple pincher from the beginning. The sad prostitute. The fact that its very clearly a look back at a moment of pointed madness, rather than a portrait of adolescence itself: “this madman stuff that happened to me around last christmas.” It always seemed strange to me that people wanted to hold it up as representative of something so much larger than that.
My favorite moment though, and one I think about more than I’d care to admit, is when our man meets up with this female friend, whose looks I’m pretty sure he disparages from the outset. They spend the afternoon together and then Holden says this:
I was half in love with her by the time we sat down. That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are.
Which I still think might be the best rendering of male desire, adolescent or otherwise, I’ve ever encountered. Far from being superficial, or sex-obsessed, or deceitful, its just viciously inconsistent. Capricious to the point of unintelligibility. Disorienting. Holden’s incredible anger at his own feelings is still the best thing about him.
I never got into the rest of Salinger’s work so much. Except for Bannanafish, which I will pass over in silence because overanalyzed.
Getting back to your celebrity point though, I don’t ever remember hearing about Salinger or Catcher without also hearing that he was a recluse. The two pieces of knowledge came hand in hand. His was the writing of a recluse, so it was always already touched by that mysticism our culture reserves for those sad, mad or glad enough to leave it. And I’ve never figured out if it was fair to blame him for its obvious shortcomings by that standard.
AG: I meant to ask about the male-ness of it all. I wonder if part of my own estrangement from Catcher stems from being a girl. I didn’t remember the passage you quoted until just now, which is surprising, because that’s exactly how, especially in high school, I always suspected/hoped/feared (in equal measure) boys felt. This exact suspicion/hope/fear explains so much adolescent girl-affect, which might be the most embarrassing thing in the world to witness in others only a few years later.
I suspect you’re right in calling it out as a specific story that readers then telescope out from in order to make it more general than it really is. In high school classes, it’s used as an example – not only of objective correlatives (remember that hat?) – but also of a “universal voice,” one that everyone can relate to. I don’t think that’s true, which is fine, many great books don’t succeed in this.
Jessica Loudis: While I’m certainly not the best person to defend Salinger (I’ve included a list of recommend reading below to compensate for my shortcomings), I have to say, I don’t think you two are giving J.D. a fair shake.
I read Catcher In the Rye around the time when postwar coming-of-age novels were required elementary school reading (possibly 6th grade?) and I remember being struck by Caulfield’s off-kilter slang and vaguely psychopathic tendencies—as well as being shocked by the fact he could simply run away without fear of parental reproach. But even as I admired the novel, it never really resonated, and until college I dismissed many of its advocates as teenage fanboys happy to find a justification for hating their daddies in one of literature’s most overexposed rebels.
Years later, while recovering from jetlag at a friend’s place in London, I came upon a copy of Nine Stories and decided to give Salinger another shot. Stephen, you sidestep getting into Bananafish because you say it’s been picked clean, but for my money, it’s one of the best and most haunting short stories ever written. (Not a particularly original statement, I know, but the last line always gives me chills). Alice, as for his claim to genius, I’d argue that it lies in his ability to capture the fragility of individual worlds with humor and razor-edged detail, and in his kid-centered stories, to speak to the moment in our lives when we first recognize the fallibility of authority. This may seem gimmicky now, but Salinger literally forged the language that made his successors possible.
Regarding Salinger’s talent at “captur[ing] a now-long-gone East Coast world,” I’d say that the world itself is less interesting as a study of Upper West Side parlor rooms and three-martini lunches than as an enactment of already-cloistered characters shrinking farther into their own psychological insularities. From Franny and Zooey to Hapworth 16, 1924, Salinger’s characters increasingly distance themselves from the world Holden Caulfield famously characterized as “full of phonies”; falling into eating disorders, depression, and in Seymour’s case, suicide. To note the obvious, it’s not exactly a leap to consider how the Glasses’ hermetic tendencies developed alongside those of our anti-hero author. I also want to add that although Salinger rejected the label of Jewish-American writer, it’s not insignificant that he believed he was fully Jewish (his mother had converted at marriage) until the age of nineteen, and his vision of New York seems somehow tinted by this extra layer of outsiderness.
Finally, Salinger’s reclusiveness always struck me as the least interesting part of his authorial persona, except in that it suggests exactly how deeply his relationship to the public was intertwined with his writing. Despite his Garbo-esque demands to be left alone, Salinger was never entirely disconnected from the world he struggled with. There have been periodic signs of life: last year, he emerged from his cocoon to file suit against a would-be copycat trying to release an unauthorized sequel to Catcher, and in 1974, he granted his last interview to a New York Times. But if the Big Question is whether Salinger spent the last fifty years writing, I’d add another one: to what extent did he actually cut himself off from society? Did he know his neighbors? Own a TV or computer? If Salinger did adopt the full-fledged Unabomber lifestyle, I doubt he could continue to tap into the anxieties and insight that made his early fiction so brilliant.
But for the sake of readers like you two, I certainly hope that he did.
Recommended Salinger criticism: