Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Ineffable and Enduring Salinger

Reading about J.D. Salinger's death brings several automatic reactions: shock, sadness, sentimentality, and another, stranger, sense of giggling anticipation.

What will it truly mean?

On the one hand, Salinger’s death changes nothing, as he retreated from society and wouldn’t share whatever new pieces he was writing. But apparently, he amassed a vault full of material. Will we finally see it now—or soon? It’s exciting, and I hope some publisher and editors are now working feverishly (with Salinger’s surviving children) to get the work out there, in book form.

Seeing as so much of our lives centers on money, I am sure this is the case, because you know that millions of people are going to buy whatever it is—good or bad, big or small—that is hurriedly packaged and put on bookshelves. (Hey—maybe even after death, Salinger will revitalize publishing!)

  • Some speculate that Salinger refused to publish because he must not have been able to produce the much-anticipated “follow-up.” But after 50+ years of working? I doubt that.
  • Maybe he just didn’t want his follow-up to be judged in the annoying way it certainly would have been.
  • Maybe he was working on some magnum opus that will soon blow us all away.
  • Maybe he was just creating art for the sake of art…though of course that leads to all sorts of other philosophical questions. Does art serve any purpose unless others can share it, appreciate it, have it affect them? (It’s sort of like the sound a tree makes, falling in a forest when no one is there to hear it. Does it make a sound?) Creating art and not getting paid for it is a common crisis of artists, and yet we artists rail constantly about art being under-appreciated, about being expected to create and disseminate art just because we have to, not because we hope to, or deserve to, get paid for it.
  • Perhaps Salinger didn’t want to deal with the ugly sides of life—notoriety, literary criticism (though some of this is undoubtedly good and useful, but I really mean for the study of literature and for intellectual discussions), and money.

I understand he had enough money. I suppose that writing a literary classic will set up a writer in a pretty decent way.

Maybe Salinger wasn’t writing about the Glass family, as he was said to have been (how much can be said about them? I like the Glass family, but I would be more interested to see what else our beloved author might have come up with).

It is my hope that Salinger used his Quiet Years to create something staggering, something that will change our lives and way of thinking in much the way his other works did for me and many other readers.

I first read “The Catcher in the Rye” when I was 12. I didn’t get it to the extent that I do now (as an English teacher), but I knew immediately that it was special. It spoke to me.

Soon afterward, I devoured every other piece of Salinger that I could find.

I always found Salinger to be Important. Certainly, he may have shaped my own voice, or at least, he made me better able to articulate what I liked about his: its veracity, its wit, his tone always tinged with sadness.

I sort of hate it now when anyone tells me they didn’t like Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye.” (That seems increasingly common as a response, and it worries me.)

What’s not to like? Holden Caulfield is a hurting, and very human, character. He expresses so many vital truths about life, about growing up, and mourning, and trying to find purpose and seeing the good in the world (along with the bad).

I don’t care that the character curses. I don’t care that he criticizes so many other characters and the world at large. Anyone who is thinking probably does both of those things with startling regularity. After all, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention—are you? (that’s from a bumper sticker)

What makes “Catcher” so eminently (and permanently) re-readable for me is its ineffability. I can’t quite express exactly what it is that makes the novel so profound, but it has many layers. It is like a great spiritual text, in a way, that one can pick up and open to any page and find something useful.

I also love “Nine Stories.” There’s so much amazing, unforgettable writing there.

I need to re-read “Franny and Zooey.” It’s been a while. And “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.”

I’ve always wished there was more Salinger to read. Well, now there almost surely is. That makes me happy.

I am sure Salinger himself might be quite unhappy to see how many people are, over the past few days, trying to cash in on his name and his death--and let me be clear that is NOT my intention. If anything, I hope that by mentioning Salinger, more people will read him and appreciate what he was trying to give to us, what he DID give to us.

We need his message(s) now more than ever.

Photo credit,2.jpg


  1. As always, you are brilliant. What a particularly lovely comparison of "Catcher" to a spiritual text. I am sure Salinger would have appreciated that.

  2. You're very kind to say that! This was one of my woke-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night blog postings. Half the people on Earth probably blogged about Salinger this week; I hope this post said something, anything, new, though I doubt it!