It’s funny how people react when you talk about J.D. Salinger. I’ve been absorbed in some of the web conversations over the last few hours, ever since we first heard that Salinger had passed at the age of 91. It seems, like any icon, there are two schools of thought: those that thought he was a creative genius, and those that thought he was overrated.
Like most subjects in life, my opinion seems to fall somewhere in the middle. I admire his work, and there is a part of me that is very sad to hear of his passing. I didn’t know him. Never met him. He wasn’t a driving force in my life. But he wrote words that moved me and more importantly, have stuck with me. For that reason alone, I feel a bit sad for the literary world that he is gone. The funny part of that statement, of course, is that he was a recluse and hadn’t published anything for fifty years. So why will the world miss him? Because he made an impact on a generation of readers, and also because, he was still fighting the good fight. When John David California tried to publish 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye about a 76-year old Holden Caulfield, Salinger fought back. He might have been 90 years old at the time, he might have been absent from the publishing world, but he wasn’t about to take it quietly. I liked that.
Like any recluse, there is a mystery about him which endeared him to many people. Some people have attached their own ideas about what he was like. They idolized him because he wasn’t in our faces showing us what he was really like. It seemed that even one of his children felt like we did. Salinger’s daughter Margaret wrote Dream Catcher: A Memoir, which used her past experience with her dad and passages from his writing to try and understand him. I thought it was interesting that she would use this method to try and tell his life story.
Like a lot of teenagers, I read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, and I was prepared to hate it. Why? Because I’d heard so much hype about it. Funny how sometimes we just want to dislike something simply because so many other people think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. There are so many books and writers that get judged harshly just because a lot of people seem to like them. For Catcher, I wanted to hate it, but loved it. It was the perfect thing for a wannabe teenage writer who was dealing with a lot of stuff at home. I could relate to the boy who wrote poems on a catcher’s mitt and longed to stay at the edge of the rye and save people from themselves.
One scene in particular, where Holden is watching Phoebe go around the carousel, and he so happy to see her enjoying herself but then she stumbles a bit and he moves forward as if he is going to catch her, but then realizes that sometimes you just have to let people do what they’re gonna go. Oh yes, I understood that very well.
So many of Salinger’s stories have stayed with me. I can still picture the water scene in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” where Seymour Glass is by the water with Sybil. The technical aspects of the story were brilliant, the ending disturbing, and the symbolism magnificent. I read this one late in my teens, and it taught me much more about short story writing than anything I’d learned in school. I can’t help but to think that writing that leaves a mark on you, even thirty years later, is some good stuff!
I fear what will happen now is probably exactly what Salinger feared. His writing, if the rumors of his continued work are true, will be published, devoured, and criticized beyond belief. After all, you can’t follow up a blockbuster (and a legend) and expect it to have the same impact. Still, I think this is where I greatly disagree with Salinger’s life. I want to write, and keep writing, even when people mock me or tell me I’m no good. Writing is how I understand the world, but writing in a vacuum is self-indulgent and meaningless. I don’t want to get so caught up in my own mind that I don’t want to make new friends or even talk to the people who have enjoyed my work.
Still, his choice was to leave it at the books he wrote and publish no more. He must have been satisfied with that decision, and we all need to come to peace with our choices. In other words, it was the way he chose to live, so who are we to judge?
As a final thought, how about a few lines from Salinger’s work:
“I hope to hell that when I do die somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.”
Rest in peace, J.D. Salinger.