J.D. Salinger dies — so what?
I’m sorry, but I can’t muster much interest in the passing of J.D. Salinger. He may have died yesterday, but he left this world in 1965, when he withdrew into a New Hampshire farmhouse and refused to publish anymore. No interviews, no pictures. The world was not good enough for him, his work too fine for the vulgar likes of us. I say we return the favor: Jerry who?
What’s more, Salinger’s reputation is based on the inexplicable popularity of his weakest piece of writing, The Catcher in the Rye. I know this novel, beloved by adolescents and post-adolescents everywhere, is supposed to be the quintessence of teen alienation and rebellion. Bah, say I.
I submit to you that Catcher isn’t about adolescence at all, but is actually a mid-life crisis novel in teen drag.
Consider: Holden Caulfield, the novel’s hero, may be 16, but he’s six feet two inches tall, with a shock of gray hair. He drinks cocktails in bars. When he runs away from home, he checks into a hotel. He has an unsatisfying experience with a prostitute (impotence, anyone?). He spends three days wallowing in drink and loneliness.
Caulfield wants to be a protector of children. He plans to run away to the West and start a new life. He suffers a nervous breakdown. Doesn’t that sound more like a middle-aged man confronting his failures than a teenager who can’t seem to get started? I couldn’t identify with Caulfield when I was a teenager, and he strikes me as inauthentic now.
Salinger was, I’ll grant, one of the finest short story writers of the post-World War II era. In his stories and novellas, he’s an accomplished stylist whose prose seems effortless, and he displays a true awareness of the emotional and psychological realities and stresses of his time.
But Salinger withdrew from public life with a relatively small body of work published. If he’d died in 1965, instead of noisily going off to his New Hampshire hermitage, he’d be considered a minor but important writer.
Salinger’s disappearance from view, combined with the cultish popularity of Catcher, only heightened the public’s romance and fascination with him. The longer he remained silent, the more we squirmed in anticipation.
Great curiosity developed over the question of whether he had stopped writing, or was scribbling daily, producing great works that he filed in a cabinet.
At this point, I could not care less. Maybe Salinger’s death will be followed by the posthumous publication of novels and stories of genius, work that elevates him to the higher reaches of American literature. If so, then I’ll take all this back.
But I have to say, if Salinger is ethically consistent in his rejection of the world, then even if he did write brilliant books in that long Rip Van Winkle hibernation, he would have been obliged to burn them.
Won’t it be delicious, though, now that he’s dead and no longer able to guard his precious words from the unworthy gaze of the world, if his estate sells rights to the movies? I can see it now: Coming soon, A Catcher in the Rye, starring Robert Pattinson…
Okay, maybe Salinger had a point after all.
Catcher lovers out there, I invite you to explain how I’m wrong.