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J.D. Salinger dies — so what?

January 29, 2010

Get off my lawn, you miserable little whippersnapper!

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.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    January 29, 2010 12:48 pm

    I read Catcher in the Rye a long time ago and didn’t like it., so I cannot defend it. The phonies that really bother me are the ones with the cellular devices growing out the side of thier heads. Catcher in the Rye will forever be linked to the murder of John Lennon, not Salinger’s fault, so the book is tainted in my eyes.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 29, 2010 2:38 pm

      Oh, well, the Beatles’ Helter Skelter inspired Charles Manson, so maybe we should give Holden a pass on the death of John Lennnon. As you do.

  2. Torsten permalink
    January 29, 2010 12:49 pm

    Well, don’t we have enough celebrities today who are convinced the world really does need them? So we get to see and hear way too much of them on the media. Salinger lived a quiet life, and it seemed to be good for him. In fact, we don’t know exactly why he didn’ want to publish anything anymore. Was it really because “the world was not good enough for him”?

    But I agree, the movie rights for Catcher in the Rye might get sold … and who stops the producers from putting the story into the NYC of 2035 or so?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 29, 2010 2:41 pm

      Oh, I’m fairly certain we’re going to hear plenty about Salinger now that he’s dead. He’ll go through the celebrity mill like Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix. I can’t help but wonder if Salinger didn’t calculate on all this, but as you say, there’s no way to know. Unless a diary or memoir manuscript or something of the like is found.

  3. Yahia permalink
    January 29, 2010 12:57 pm

    Mid-life crisis in teen drag is awfully good.. Perhaps it was JD who never outgrew a kind out teenage petulence and suffered from a kind of arrested emotional development – perpetually alienated and all too-readily wounded; an existentialist manqué.

    Still even if he was overly-sensitive & suffered an unbecoming world recoil, I do not think him deserving of your uncharacteristic hint of cruelty. Is it not enough to have given readers one book they have connected with; or as you admit, several stories of merit and effortless style. Does a writer ‘owe’ the world any more; and is it not the right of an individual (including public figures) to retreat at some point and not play the game, without the fear of being picked on.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 29, 2010 2:43 pm

      Yahia, you wound me. “Cruelty?” Not my intention to be cruel. And of course writers have the right to retreat. But that’s not really ceasing to play the game — it’s another gambit in the game, as Salinger surely knew and took into account. All I’m saying is: If Salinger wanted to be left alone, then let’s leave him alone. Oh, and that Catcher is overrated

  4. Kayla permalink
    January 29, 2010 1:17 pm

    I agree with Yahia. Maybe “Catcher” didn’t do anything for you, but that doesn’t mean that NO ONE could relate to Holden.
    I read “Catcher” while I was in high school, a project for a cruel Honors English teacher who seemed to share your views on Salinger and “Catcher.” She didn’t like the novel, but I read it anyway and loved it; not because I felt I could relate to it, but because I felt the writing was very honest. I then read biographies on Salinger and came to realize that Salinger was probably a bit mental and really just wanted everyone to leave him alone. He didn’t think he was better than everyone else; he was only one of those people that couldn’t handle the onslaught of daily life. I don’t even think that Salinger enjoyed the fame that “Catcher” brought upon him. He didn’t write the book for other people. I think it was more of a way for him to characterize his feelings and views of society in a way that wouldn’t put more strain on his already burdened mind.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 29, 2010 2:45 pm

      I certainly will not argue against someone who had a genuine and favorable aesthetic response to Catcher. You are entitled to your joy and pleasure in the book, and I don’t begrudge you for it. But again, if Salinger wanted to be left alone, then let’s give him his wish. Let’s leave him alone.

  5. January 29, 2010 2:06 pm

    I still have the same Catcher I had when I was a teenager and read it and emotionally got caught up in Holden’s story. Though we came from totally different backgrounds, I felt his alienation and angst and his bafflement at the grownup world. Like Huck Finn, Holden became one of my literary heroes. That was long, long ago. I’m sitting here wondering how well the book would go down now. I read the first page and I don’t think I could handle reading the book cover to cover. I see JD behind it saying phony, phony, phony, one of Holden’s favorite words. Still, Catcher is being taught all over this country and the death of its author will most likely increase the adulation. The short stories, though, that’s where the real genius resides. RIP, JD. No one can bother you now, old man.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 29, 2010 2:47 pm

      Duff, you argue well for the value Catcher once held for you, and you’re probably wise in your decision not to read it again. Why sully the memory of a powerful reading experience that meant so much to your younger self. And of course, I completely agree Salinger’s real genius lies in the short stories.

  6. January 29, 2010 7:07 pm

    Chauncey I’m too fond of your elegance of spirit to deliberately wound you. That’s why I find your dismissiveness of the (recently deceased) man mean-spirited, and beneath you. Catcher might be overrated, and Salinger’s retreat might indeed be conflicted. So retreating is not ceasing to play the game? Is it any wonder then that other early successes, or minor celebrities are driven to madness (or worse, suicide) because of this no-exit mentality on parts of media/public? I agree with you that he does deserve to be left alone, respectfully.

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 29, 2010 7:42 pm

    Maybe I’m being obtuse, or perhaps I’m not expressing myself adequately, but I’ve re-examined my blog post and I fail to detect meanness of spirit in it. I call for Salinger to be left alone, I present the always arguable case that Catcher is overrated, I suggest his greatest achievement is in his short fiction, I offer the also disputable assertion that Salinger is a minor writer, I suggest his withdrawal from society paradoxically inflamed public interest, I declare that ethical (perhaps I should have said “philosophical”) consistency demands he burned any masterpieces he may have written in secret after 1965, and I conjecture that his estate may finally sell rights to Hollywood, resulting most likely in bad movies — thereby vindicating at least part of Salinger’s distaste for the world.

    I don’t impugn his motives or character, nor do I speculate as to his soundness of mind. I make the assumption throughout that he was competent to make the choices he made.

    But I will concede some impatience with those artists who suddenly decide to fall silent. Of course they have the right to do so, but I am not obliged to admire them for it. For example, who is more admirable in this example: Bill Watterson for abandoning his great, great comic strip Calvin and Hobbes after a decade of consistent excellence, or Charles Schultz, who soldiered through 50 years of Peanuts, including some relatively mediocre periods, to produce some of his very finest work in his last years?

    My vote goes to Schultz.

    But I like to think myself open to instruction, and you chide me with such gentleness, Yahia, perhaps on further reflection I will see the error of my reaction to Salinger’s death.

  8. January 30, 2010 12:01 pm

    Heck, I thought I had problems. I used to hide in New Hampshire to. Up on the border of Canada. I left a whole bunch of novels there. I now will go back to look for them. I will be very honest. I thought this man actually died 8 to 10 years ago. I promise, I will not fall silent. Hopefully because everyone will buy my books. I will be a talking, and a walking. (how long will it take for people to tell me to stop). It is a fine line between great and not. It is a fine line between fame and none. Where is my best buddy Sarah P? It is to bad he most likely died lonely. That is what he wanted.

  9. January 30, 2010 12:49 pm

    Chauncey, now you have me questioning my response to your response and wondering, given that I’m not a great fan of JD, what is it that feels off? Perhaps part of it is cultural, we are taught to speak well of the dead (or at least pass them over in silence) and that is why I find the mocking tone distasteful. Partly, too, I think there is a sour-grapes, school-bully vindictiveness to it – he did not play the game so he’s fair game: “The world was not good enough for him, his work too fine for the vulgar likes of us. I say we return the favor.” Maybe I’m the one whose being overly-sensitive now, but its seems evident to me that Salinger’s withdrawal (or anyone’s for that matter) however anti-social is a confession of vulnerablity, or psychological frailty. And, this is probably cultural again, but I am always taken aback in the US by the media’s sense of entitlement to their public figures, and how mercillessly they taunt them and invade their privacy. I do not share your impatience with artists who fall silent; as I say in an aphorism of mine: the hermit does not hide from the outside world, he seeks the world within.

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 30, 2010 1:19 pm

    Yahia, you make persuasive points, but let me add a few additional thoughts. While Salinger the man has died, the writer remains always in the present tense. I would not, of course, mock him at his funeral, and my sympathies are with his family and friends. But the writer remains fair game at all times. Hunting season is never closed.

    I’m a little surprised you have not detected my hidden subject here. I generally think it unkosher for a writer to explain his intentions, which action bespeaks a woeful failure of the writing art, but because you raise important issues I will here make an exception.

    By dismissing Salinger, I intended to satirize a bigger target– the American (or perhaps human) fixation on celebrity. While I really do think less of artists who retire from the hurlyburly of public life, it is the insatiable appetite of the public that hounds them. Salinger the man went away, Salinger the writer fell silent — but Salinger the public figure remained ever present, thanks to reporters who wrote about failed attempts to get interviews or pictures, former assistants or friends who wrote books, fans who streamed to his rural stronghold (“Get off my lawn!”). It’s this tendency in human nature, human culture, and the media/entertainment industry that I’m most piqued about.

    But, still, I stand by everything I write in this blog post. I stand by the surface of my argument.

    You have forced into a more rigorous examination of my thoughts and motives than I expected, Yahia. For that I must thank you.

  11. January 31, 2010 10:11 pm

    Any book reviewer who can “trash” (and that’s hyperbolic, agreed!) both Salinger and McEwan — has my respect.

  12. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 1, 2010 1:10 am

    Emily, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me all weekend. Contrary to popular opinion, though, I do like a book once in awhile. For example, I’ll be writing in a few days about my enthusiasm for Maryse Conde. Stay tuned.

  13. alexis permalink
    February 1, 2010 4:30 pm

    I read Salinger in tenth grade, and I have to say it wasn’t my least favorite “classic” book we read that year. That title goes to the Steinbeck.

    I do find it unfortunate that Salinger continued to benefit from the world he scorned. Unless of course he donated the money he made from the society that bought his book instead of living off of it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 3, 2010 5:10 pm

      Who knows? But I’m sure we’ll find out. The vultures will be picking his bones for the next few decades, I’m sure. We’ll learn all we wanted to know about Salinger, and no doubt some things we didn’t want to know.

  14. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 1, 2010 5:47 pm

    I loved Catcher in the Rye as a kid and could very much relate to it. Even though I was a girl.

    Wasn’t Salinger like 90-something? Perhaps becoming a recluse is some sort of Fountain of Youth?

    And yes, Chauncey, you are being unfair and dismissive to the man in your classic cynical way. Fear not, however, for I am used to it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 3, 2010 5:11 pm

      Aw, shucks. You’re just saying that to be nice.

      As I said earlier, I will not argue with anyone who read Catcher and experienced a positive response to it. Literature, at this level, is personal.

      I do stand by my arguments, though.

  15. sandra permalink
    February 1, 2010 8:00 pm

    The Catcher in the Rye is not one of my favourite books (Nine Stories is), however it is one of the best books ever written. Beyond my personal (and likely petty likes and dislikes) it has quality, the way Pirsig defined it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is just a good book. That’s all. I am not going to argue wether it is about adolescent or middle life crisis, it doesn’t matter. I am not sure if the human spirit changes that much with age. May be while we are young we are aware that we searching for our Self, for who we are; then we enter the real world and forget what we were looking for, forget we were even looking; until in midlife, when social preasure eases, we figure we never found ourelves, we never found whatever we are/could be/could have been. We’ve lost our inocence, we’ve lost ourselves trying to “achieve” social standing, power, money, whatever useless things society told us to value. I can only envy JD Salinger that he didn’t have to go through that. Whether withdrawing from society is the only way to be ourselves, I don’t know. Whether it worked for him, I don’t know either. I hope it did to some extend. An artist can’t be without an audience and although he may believe the audiende incapable of understanding him presently, he probably hopes that some day his creation will be appropriately appreciated.
    If they make a movie after The Catcher in teh Rye, I hope it’s a good one. Who knows, may be Robert Pattinson will surprise us and turn out to be a good actor.

  16. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 3, 2010 5:16 pm

    That would be a surprise, wouldn’t it? If they make a movie out of Catcher, I hope they find some unknown talent who really is a teenager, rather than give it to some twenty-something pretty boy.

    I believe that the various stages of life are profoundly different in tone, character, and the challenges they present us. None is more important than the others, right up to old age and death. A life is a whole thing, just as a book is, and the story isn’t over until the very end.

    I do think it makes a difference, though, whether Catcher is a story about teen angst or a disguished midlife crisis. It’s a matter of authenticity.

    You write well about your feelings regarding Catcher. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  17. Lee Whitworth permalink
    May 13, 2010 9:16 am

    Your a cock for writing this!

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