Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 28, 2010

Ave Atque Vale, J. D. Salinger

I want to say a few words about J.D. Salinger, who died Wednesday. I can only comment about what reading his books and stories meant to me. There’s no need to repeat the details that are being covered in countless obituaries. Immensely influential, at least upon my generation and the one prior to mine, he created his substantial reputation with only a small body of published work. He last published a story in 1965, at just about the time that I read The Catcher in the Rye.

The book is exactly as old as I am, published the year I was born. Salinger was 32 then, probably a victim of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder after landing at Omaha Beach during WWII, an experience that, according to most accounts, re-formed him as an individual and a writer. By the time I read The Catcher in the Rye, in high school, the book was enormously successful and notorious. It was, in fact, forbidden at my school, and cost at least one teacher at my school who insisted on having it in his curriculum his job. I took great pleasure in carrying around that little red-covered paperback with its yellow serif lettering. I can picture it at this moment. It was a literal touchstone of truth for a 16 year-old.

It’s hard to explain now what all the fuss was about. A literal dramatization of the book on TV, however frank, would pale in comparison against almost any current program for its lack of outright sexuality or sensuality, violence or perversion. This story depicts Holden Caufield, a young man who feels that he is alone, that no one understands him, and who is agonized by what he calls “phoniness.” Phonies, to Caufield, are everyone who represents the unquestioning norm, the silly rules of school and church and home, the adults who insist upon adherence to them, and who maintains a painful awareness of the constant presence of the irony inherent in obeying rules only because they are rules and not because they represent any deeper significance. Although our language has altered a bit in sixty years, and some of the conventions of Caufield’s prep school are a far remove from the scrum of the typical high school of this century, the emotional underpinnings of Caufield’s anomie are still immediately accessible.

Salinger struck the perfect chords in depicting the disaffection and distancing of adolescents, and he did it with a compelling story, believable characters and utterly dead-to-rights language that sounded as if it were truly being spoken by a narrator who was someone you know. Passages from the book still resonate when read aloud. Salinger had mastered the common parlance, and, if the situations of the plot were somewhat contrived, we overlook them in the rush of his linguistic mastery. The cadence, the voice, the timbre of disaffected youth is there, as true as it can be made.

Holden Caufield is no role model for anyone, and that may have been the problem at the core of banning the book and costing poor Mr. Klass his job at my school. “Phonies,” of course, include everyone but Caufield. He is selfish, spoiled and immature. He correctly perceives the gulf that always exists between an individual and society, and he is not mature enough to understand that there can be accommodation between them. Nothing better demonstrates the alienation of a teen ager than this book, and we can only hope that we grow out of the angst and learn to take arms against the tide of mediocrity in some productive way. Holden Caufield fails in that regard, but the book is about his struggle, and it still rings true.

I have been struck more than I expected to be by news of Mr. Salinger’s death. I am sorry that he has left us without a word, and without letting us see anything of what he may have been writing for past 45 years, if, as one always hoped, he has been writing. There are vague reports, supported by at least one comment he himself made more than 30 years ago that he was writing steadily. However, he obviously felt no need to publish. More than that, he suffered from a tremendous desire to avoid publishing. What will be the fate of any unpublished works we can only speculate. In fact, I envy him if that was enough. Writing something well enough that one is willing to put it in front of a philistinic, alien public is a terrifying prospect. We should be glad that, against all odds, Mr. Salinger found lasting joy in writing. He simply hated having to make it public. He was a writer, and I hope for his sake that he continued to write and to derive pleasure from it. I hope for my own sake that, if he did, we’ll have a chance to see what he was doing. We may not.

I was in college during the heyday of the “The New Criticism.” Irving Howe, Harold Bloom and those cats maintained that “the work shall stand by itself,” without reference to biography or other peripheral details. That view is valid, I suppose, but leads to a kind of solipsism, evading the correlation of affect and effect. Does it matter when a work was written, whether it was good times or bad, who was President, if there was a war on or if it was peacetime? It’s extremely difficult to argue that these cultural and societal and personal associations do not matter, except in some rarified realm of academe.

I grew up reading everything and anything. Comic books and The Hardy Boys and Robinson Crusoe and Myths of Ancient Greece all mixed together. Naive as I was, I failed to understand that The Hardy Boys stories were written when my parents were children, and that Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719 or so, and, even if I knew that the Greek myths were ancient, I didn’t appreciate that they hailed from a world that was inherently different from my own. For all I knew, Frank and Joe Hardy were contemporaries of Holden Caufield and Robinson Crusoe was maybe just a little older. Sure, I could tell that the language in Defoe’s novel was a little archaic, but I accepted it at face value; I had no way of knowing that there was an immense gulf of cultural reference between the 18th Century world of colonial exploration and exploitation and post-nuclear America. But I could tell one thing: when I read the language of Salinger’s characters, it sounded real and it rang true, even if the conventions of a boarding prep school in Pennsylvania was a bit of a stretch for a kid in public school in Ohio. For once, I could see myself, and I thank J.D. Salinger for the gift. I will hope for more, but what we already have is wonderful.

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Responses

  1. Nicely done piece. Among other things, LHS was the school with no Klass where the image of “catch her with the rye” will forever be associated with the book, at least for a few old timers.

    Like

  2. Well written. I remember reading this book as a freshman in college during a very bleak winter quarter at ISU and found it extremely depressing and therefore distasteful. But certainly effective.

    Like


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