Sunday, January 31, 2010

J.D. Salinger: An Appreciation

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”-The Catcher in the Rye

That run-on sentence from "The Catcher in the Rye" (1951) is one of the most engaging openings to a novel I've ever read. J.D. Salinger, who passed away at 91 this past week, had an outstanding ear for the way people actually spoke. But the book meant more than pitch-perfect dialogue. Many who read it when young identified with Holden Caulfield's alienation from the phonies and hucksters who populate the world.

This theme of resistance to the adult world continued with "Franny and Zooey" (1961), which pivoted around Franny's being "sick of ego." Franny and her brother Zooey belonged to the Glass family, which included eight children from the Upper West Side of Manhattan who at one point starred on a quiz show, "It's a Wise Child." The oldest child was Seymour, whose suicide is depicted in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" (in the collection "Nine Stories," 1953)–though I was never sure why this supposedly saintly, wise brother shot himself in the head. The Glass family saga continued with two novellas in one volume, "Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters" and "Seymour: An Introduction" (1963).

Salinger clearly loved the Glass children, who were precocious and spiritually searching. Devoted readers wanted to join the family, while some critics felt they were too pure for the world most have to inhabit. Salinger himself wanted no part of worldliness, withdrawing from his native New York City to seclusion in Cornish, New Hampshire, in 1953. In "Catcher," Holden states that when he reads a book he likes, he wishes that he could call up the author any time–something Salinger clearly could not abide. Holden also had the desire to retreat to "a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made"–something Salinger did, refusing to publish anymore since he viewed it as an invasion of his privacy. The last story he published was in the June 19, 1965, edition of The New Yorker, entitled, "Hapworth 16, 1924," in the form of Seymour's letter from summer camp. Salinger's alter-ego, Buddy Glass, introduces the letter.

Will the literary mystery be revealed regarding whether Salinger left a treasure trove of writing that will be posthumously published? If so, what about the literary worth of those works? In "Seymour: An Introduction," the writing was impenetrable, perhaps a symptom of Salinger's very withdrawal. Regardless, Salinger left four enduring books, one of which will especially continue to engage readers from the very opening sentence no matter where or when it's read–the very definition of a classic.

Supplemental materials:

• "Of Teen Angst and an Author's Alienation," a literary appraisal by Michiko Kakutani
• "J.D. Salinger," on Salinger's reclusiveness, by Verlyn Klinkenborg
• An insightful discussion on PBS's "News Hour" between host Jim Lehrer; Nicholas Delbanco, University of Michigan; and Robert Thompson, Syracuse University:

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