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J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010 - F. Brett Cox

Jan. 29th, 2010

12:39 pm - J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010

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The Catcher in the Rye was pretty much the first 20th-century novel written for adults I ever read. I was eleven. I immediately read Salinger’s other three books--Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction--and reread them periodically over the next decade or so. Except for Nine Stories, which I’ve taught a couple of times, I haven’t read any of them in a very long time.

Many find Catcher’s narrator, Holden Caulfield, utterly insufferable. If Holden had been 30, or even in his 20s, I would agree. But he was 16, and so, eventually, was I, and I knew exactly how he felt. Not that I ever mourned for the lost innocence of childhood. But, as Holden might have put it, I knew goddam good and well that those phonies who said they knew what was what knew no such goddam thing. And even the first time I read it I was astonished by how Salinger was telling this story. Catcher remains, for my money, the most pitch-perfect first-person novel in American literature (yes, including Huckleberry Finn).

All that said, my main affection for Salinger’s work rests on his stories of the Glass family, all of whom are, I suspect, as insufferable to some as Holden, but whom I adored. As a young reader, Franny and Zooey was my favorite—when I got to the description of Seymour and Buddy’s childhood room looking as if it were occupied by “two struggling twelve-year-old lawyers,” I suddenly knew what I wanted from the world. As an adult, however, I turned back to Nine Stories. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esme, with Love and Squalor” get all the attention, and they are brilliant, but “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” is right there with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” in the select company of perfect short stories. Had Salinger permitted any of them to be reprinted, they would be staples of undergraduate anthologies, and Salinger would be as widely taught in universities as he is in high schools.

But he didn’t. Instead he retreated to the New Hampshire woods (not far from where I live), became at once stone silent and barking mad, emerging for the occasional affair with someone young enough to be his granddaughter, or the occasional legal action to shut down some hapless biographer or small-press publisher. Whether he spent the next half-century stuffing a vault with more stories, or sitting in an orgone box, or both, is hardly the point. We have those four books. It would probably be an exaggeration to say, had I not read those books at an early age, I would never have become a writer. But maybe not much of one.

And if I hadn’t read them at an early age, I might not have begun tracking myself into a career as an English teacher, which means I would not have had the out-of-class, stopping-by-my-office-about-something-else conversation I had last year with a student who, apropos of nothing, went on at length about how much he loved Salinger, whom he had never read in the specific classes he took with me. That student is now, I believe, heading for Afghanistan. I can only hope that his love and fascination with Salinger will serve him well. Maybe a copy of Nine Stories is floating around the base, and my student will reread, or somebody else’s student will read for the first time, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” or “For Esme, with Love and Squalor,” and think about what’s what.


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Date:January 29th, 2010 07:31 pm (UTC)
The Glass family prepared me for late Heinlein, though in their case the one-man circle jerk was more spiritual and less sexual. That is by no means entirely a put-down.
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Date:January 29th, 2010 11:16 pm (UTC)
True that. I actually discovered Heinlein shortly after I discovered Salinger. Hm, there's a paper in there somewhere....
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Date:January 29th, 2010 09:13 pm (UTC)


Brett, I appreciate what you found in Salinger's work and concur with nearly all of the conclusions that I understand (meaning I have not read the "other" four books). He seemed to me to be the first to give a fearless, honest voice to the purgatory that is adolescence. I think one of the great mysteries will be whether he wrote for himself or whomever during the past decades. I have to ask you this: Is it possible that his stature is due at least in part to his overt reclusiveness, like an artist who dies at his or her peak, a la Morrison or Dean? Does the fact that he leaves us wanting for more imbue what we have with unfairly emotional value? Just asking? BTW, thank you for sending me to the dictionary with "orgone."--Lee Hinnant
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Date:January 29th, 2010 11:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Salinger

Hi, Lee--I think Salinger's reclusiveness inevitably added to his fame. Whether it affects anyone's individual response to his work is an open question. Maybe in some ways it's easier to feel devotion to someone you don't know a lot about.
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Date:February 1st, 2010 12:55 am (UTC)
Thanks for this, Brett. It's so fashionable to sneer at Salinger's work, dismiss it as juvenile or passe. I reread Catcher for the first time since adolescence a few years ago. To say it held up is an understatement. It's of course impossible to recapture the freshness of the prose, because that voice, like Hemingway's, has by now completely permeated popular culture. But in a way, that makes the power of the novel all the more evident, because it still works, even when you're not dazzled and enraptured by that voice.
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