The news of the death of J.D. Salinger recalled the famous Dorothy
Parker quip on being told that Calvin Coolidge was dead: "How can they
Of all the iconic writers of the second half of the 20th century,
Salinger let us down most. Like one of his characters who demanded
"authenticity," the author hid behind being authentic only to himself.
He escaped constant public acknowledgement after publishing "The Catcher
in the Rye" and only a dozen or so short stories.
He was not a man of his time. In our contemporary culture, which
catapults good, mediocre and lousy writers into the den of lions for the
rest of us to wait impatiently for the kill, he would not be pushed,
shoved or flattered to engage. He rejected his 15 minutes of fame or
as one obituary writer put it, "he was famous for not being famous."
Unfortunately, he was too pained to write for anyone but himself, and
possibly for posterity if he left anything to be published posthumously.
He shunned interviewers and wouldn't be exploited with tales of "mixing
memory and desire," to quote from one of his short stories quoting T.S.
Eliot. What has been largely overlooked in the discussions of Salinger's
works after his death is the intelligent reading behind his writing.
Ambitious teenagers would do well to imitate.
Holden Caufield, the narrator in "Catcher in the Rye," not only
immortalized adolescent angst, he showed how it was smart to be smart.
He had been kicked out of school, but not because he wouldn't read, even
books he thought might "stink." He loved "classical books" and
fantasized he might have been friends with the authors of the ones he
liked best. Holden didn't want his own biography told like that of David
Copperfield, but he knew "David Copperfield" well enough to criticize
it. He was not a dumbed-down boy.
I spent the weekend rereading most of Salinger's work (a slender
legacy) and learned to my pleasure that the novel and short stories
remain refreshing and wonderfully innocent and politically incorrect.
His characters smoke, but the reader follows the dim light and the
falling ash of the cigarettes as contributing to the meaning of the
action. When Seymour, an adult in the short story "A Perfect Day for
Bananafish," talks to a little girl about the tale of "Little Black
Sambo," the tale is not condemned as racist but cherished as a poetic
point of common reference in an amusing fairy tale:
"Did the tigers run all around that tree?"
"I thought they'd never stop. I never saw so many tigers."
"There's only six," Sybil said.
"Only six!" said the young man. Do you call that
That's an artist's way of getting the perspective right.
In "Catcher in the Rye," Holden Caufield is not Huckleberry Finn, but
he's a true literary descendant of Huck, imparting the wizened thoughts
of a kid who can see through the phonies and the pomposities and
insecurities of both children and adults. Other characters do likewise.
Watch Lane, the boyfriend in "Franny," order snails and frogs' legs,
telling those little froggies to "sit still." Snobbish foodies today
could learn from his caustic criticism tempered with delicious wit. Who
doesn't believe that Salinger's favorite food was the hole in the
Huckleberry Finn takes the measure of human nature from those who live
on the Mighty Mississippi; Holden Caufield exposes the sophisticates in
and around New York City. If I were still a teacher, I would challenge
my students to write a page of "Catcher" in words from their own
experience, just to see how hard the craft really is. No tricks of Harry
Potter allowed, no pushing a plot around or employing vampires to
sexually titillate adolescents. Holden, a true child of the '50s,
complains that he doesn't understand what a girl means when he's necking
with her and she tells him to stop. His voice, unlike vulgar
contemporary adolescent jargon, displays perfect pitch in capturing the
budding perplexity and puzzlement of an early sexual encounter.
"Catcher in the Rye" takes its title from an overriding metaphor. Holden
weaves a fantasy image of himself standing at the edge of a crazy cliff
near a field of rye. When children playing a game in the rye above the
cliff begin to fall off it, it's Holden's responsibility as the only big
person around to catch them. The pleasures of childhood can be dangerous
and difficult, but he doesn't want them to miss those thrills. Salinger
gives the catcher an authentic voice in the terrifying space between
childhood and adulthood. Too bad this remarkable author wouldn't let us
be his friend, too.