It is a peculiarly American custom, perhaps, to be more interested in artists than their art; or maybe Americans have just gone further, as is their wont, gossipwise, than the Brits, say, who were more absorbed by Byron's life than his work, or the Australians, absorbed by Shane Warne's antics more than his exquisite artistry.
So Jerome David Salinger, born in seething Manhattan just after the First World War, grew more famous in American life for retreating from it, in 1953, than for his two masterpieces, The Catcher in the Rye (1948) and Nine Stories (1953).
Salinger sightings, rumors of mounds of finished but unpublished novels, memoirs by a former lover and by his daughter Margaret, sudden copyright lawsuits issuing from his refuge in the New Hampshire forest — this was what we heard of Salinger for more than half a century, as his public persona morphed from the lanky, dashing, funny war vet (he fought on D-Day and in the Battle of the Bulge) who created one of the greatest voices in American literature, to a sort of woodsy Howard Hughes, reportedly an ascetic obsessed with religion, privacy, and health food behind the high fence of his rural compound.
Meanwhile The Catcher in the Rye became a classic (it sells 250,000 copies a year, and is, with Jack Kerouac's On the Road and S. L. Hinton's The Outsiders, a basic text for American teenagers) and Nine Stories became a touchstone, particularly for writers; among the authors who counted it a lodestar are Philip Roth and the late John Updike.
Writers of every age are still thrilled by Salinger's uncanny ear for the rhythm and verve of the way people speak, and for his wonderful eye for turning points of infinitesimal subtlety — the virtues of the best short fiction.
Salinger also published two collections of long linked stories about the Glass family — ex-vaudevillean parents and seven brilliant children, some of whom appear in Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters — and he was rumoured to have written vast reams more about them; a roman-fleuve, perhaps, like Patrick O'Brian's sea novels or J. K. Rowling's wizardly epics, that probably will appear some years from now to great acclaim.
A friend of mine maintains that Salinger's greatest creation was the Legend of the Forest Recluse, which protected the troubled man (he was hospitalised at the end of the war for what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder) and allowed him to live the quiet life he wanted; but I am more interested in what he prosed than what he posed.
With his death the legend vanishes and the books remain. Franny and Zooey and Raise High are interesting and worth a look, but Nine Stories is brilliant and haunting, some of the best short stories ever written in America, and Catcher is one of the best American novels ever. It will always be in print, no matter what sort of country America becomes, because it gets at the deepest American virtues and vices, and does so with a verve and brio and seeming cockiness that is alluring and insane-making at once.
Holden Caulfield is a sneering, cynical, skeptical, snob, quick to blame others and slow to assume responsibility; but beneath the brittle veneer is a youth starving for love and meaning. Not unlike, maybe, the young country he and his creator come from, and the young country where you read these words.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland.
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03 February 2010
Thanks, Brian, I liked your piece very much. In fact I had gone out and ordered for my teenage daughters a new copy of Catcher in the Rye ( it is years since I read it, my paperback copy is long vanished), on the news of Salinger's death. Somewhere in the book attic I have his Nine Stories also - in my edition, it carries the title of the lead story 'For Esme, with love and squalor". Salinger is a haunting writer who says a lot to young people. His reputation can only now grow, I suspect.
ROBERT BLAIR KAISER
03 February 2010
Best obit of Salinger so far. Congratulations, Brian Doyle. You really caught the essence of the man and of his writings, which kind of go together I imagine.
03 February 2010
The recent death of J D Salinger had me recalling an incident of almost 50 years ago.
Then, a young English teacher in tune with the breezes of change starting to blow through Education Departments and society, wanted to introduce Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to his senior English literature class.
His Headmaster – an elderly conservative conditioned by his own life’s experiences - firmly denied the request.
‘No Holden Caulfield will ever enter my school,’ the voice of authority declared.
The times, they were a ‘changing.
03 February 2010
You're wrong, Brian--Holden's a nice guy whose problem is that he does not know how to live in an imperfect world, one in which his brother Allie died.
04 February 2010
Bob, unfortunately that young teacher, now retired and in his 70’s, never did get to establish with his class if Holden Caulfield was a ‘good guy‘ or not. And the recalcitrant Headmaster would be 100 years old today, if he were still alive. I fantasize that one day we may all meet again ‘comin’ through the rye‘.
05 February 2010
I continue to insist cheerfully that Holden is not a nice guy -- or maybe he's a good guy under the surly snotty sneery snobby mask -- I reread the book a while ago (my sons were reasding it for school) and Holden is a snob of the first order, sure that everyone else is an idiot and only he is right about everything -- and in fact his exquisite snobbishness is so exactly a teenage boy's attitude that I think it's part of the book's genius. Salinger got that tone perfectly right, which is why teenagers love it, I bet --they totally identify. Whereas the older reader sighs a little, being much more aware of grace under duress. CATCHER seems to me a book like ON THE ROAD that you should read at a certain point in your dawning maturity, when it hits powerfully, and not later, when you, well, sigh.