Thursday, January 28, 2010

Salinger's Face

For the longest time, the paperback cover of The Catcher in the Rye was distinctly bland. It was brick-red, bearing only a title; no blurbs, no synopsis, and most definitely no author photo. It told you nothing about what was inside, mainly I suppose because this author who so despised publicity of any kind didn't want the p.r. machine to come between you and him. No doubt there are other writers with the same wish: just take me as I am. Don't believe what you've heard. Here's the title, here's the book. Read it or don't.

Of course, Salinger's book certainly began with a great deal of hubbub when it was published in 1951, and the original covers certainly reflected it. Eventually, there was no need for it. The title alone was famous, particularly back in the mid-1960s, when it was controversial and quite the topic of conversation in homes across the country.

I was about nine or ten when I first saw it on a rack in a drugstore, and I was immediately drawn to it: ah, so this is the book that mother wrote letters to the editor about. The book with so many swear words that adults nationwide sought to get it pulled from the stacks of libraries. I remember picking it up and seeing, probably for the first time, the word "crap" in print. Strange to admit, but I guess I was just sheltered enough for this euphemism to produce a mild shock.

I didn't pick it up again until I was 13 or 14, at which point I became a little obsessed with the book and its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, who has been kicked out of Pencey Prep and spends three days trawling through the Manhattan underground of his day, recalling his past, encountering strangers, reconnecting with friends, teachers and his little sister Phoebe and generally venting about the crumminess of the world and what he hopes not to become. He's an adolescent -- cynical, sentimental, outraged -- and like most people I recognized myself in him.

Perhaps I should say people of a certain age. A New York Times article from last June said kids today find the book horribly outdated, and I'm sure there are people who have felt this way for a long time. Indeed, you can barely mention the book these days without encountering a chorus of people who say they always hated it and that it always seemed like a junior high school teacher's idea of a book that would appeal to the young.

I can't put myself in that group. For me, it may have been the first book I read with a character I could immediately recognize: someone who talked just as slangy as the kids I knew, and who thought the same way, more or less. I don't think I had yet been exposed to the idea that the inner life of a teenager in the 20th Century could be the stuff of great literature. In the years since, I've never recanted this fondness; in fact, Holden's central agon against phoniness -- that to become an adult largely means to become a sell-out, that it's a long process of adopting thoughts you don't believe, pursuing things you don't want, becoming what you never wished to be, and generally becoming a little less alive -- isn't one I've ever really rejected.

I became equally obsessed with the author, whose name was always prefaced by "famously reclusive."

I once spent a long afternoon in the Panama City Public Library reading everything I could about J.D. Salinger; the main source of information was a 1963 Time cover story that I happily dug out of the stacks. I didn't know it at the time, but the basic information in that article would change little over the remaining decades of his life: that he had apparently called it quits after just four books, that he lived in a farmhouse in a little town in New England, and that he doesn't talk to reporters.

For a long time, I had no idea what he looked like, and when I finally saw the standard author photo of him, I was a little surprised to see that he looked like a substitute teacher, or some middle-aged deacon in my dad's church -- a non-descript adult, albeit one who hadn't forgotten what it was like to be young.

Of course, over the years, as The Catcher in the Rye was followed by Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, that was part of the reason Salinger became 1) so massively, incalculably influential and 2) so deeply hated. As so many, too many, commentators have noted through the years and especially in the weeks following his death, Salinger fetishized what it meant to be young, not only with his only novel but with all those Glass family stories that followed. Holden Caulfield and the Glass siblings are in so many ways smarter than the adults around them, and they see through them. They're cursed with the kind of sensitivity and deep spiritual awareness that adults try to shed in their journey to becoming hard-shelled phony sell-outs. Holden wants to save children from adulthood. In "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," Seymour Glass would rather blow his brains out than remain husband to the shallow society gal he has just married.


Besides his sole novel, there were also the stories, which to my mind are on the same level as Joyce's Dubliners. They changed everything. They were like nothing else at the time, and set a standard against which others, fairly or not, were judged. In Arthur Mizener's 1953 review for The New Republic, John Cheever had the misfortune of having a strong book of short stories (The Enormous Radio and Other Stories) compared against Salinger's singular collection, and found wanting. Mizener saw Cheever -- "not a writer of any great talent" -- as conventionally skillful, clever and moral, and it may be that at that stage of Cheever's career, Mizener had a point. Cheever didn't really integrate his moral vision into a larger, more artistic one until later. Salinger, though, had already arrived:

Mr. Salinger is an altogether different matter ... [The stories] have, as the novel did not, a controlling intention which is at once complex enough for Mr. Salinger's awareness and firm enough to give it a purpose. You suspect that the hovering presence, if not the actual blue pencil of a New Yorker editor had something to do with this ... In fact, though it is a dangerous, perhaps even impertinent speculation, I would guess that Mr. Salinger's special gift for offcenter visions of experience comes from a kind of displacement of the imagination which makes it particularly difficult for him to conceive any unifying intention.

Both his prose (smart, knowing, hip but also acute and perceptive) and his "offcenter visions of experience" created a music which a lot of writers couldn't get out of their heads. Even young, contemporary writers hear it today.


When J.D. Salinger died last month at 91 -- on the same day as Howard Zinn, whom he completely crowded off the web pages -- he went to his grave knowing he had achieved what other writers can only hope for: immortality.

As a writer, he had already been effectively dead for some 45 years, yet in all that time he was never insignificant or forgotten. He wrote four books that have never gone out of print, that were continually read by succeeding generations and which created ever more obsessed fans. I can't think of any reason this will change -- except, perhaps, what comes next. Salinger is dead, but so much of his story remains to be heard, because he didn't want to tell it.

Did he quit writing altogether, or were there more books yet to come? Stories began leaking out from different sources that he never stopped writing, that he had completed between four and 15 novels.

Next question: are they any good? Likely answer: probably not.

Salinger's last works showed a man slowly disappearing into the ether. There was the all-but-unreadable "Seymour: An Introduction," an incessant ramble about...oh gosh, I don't even remember, it's been so long since I've read it. Something about Zen and one hand clapping. Barely a story, as I recall, so much as a piece of short fiction that seemed to last an eternity.

Then there was "Hapworth 16, 1924," which was published in The New Yorker in 1965 and almost (but not quite) made it into book form, possibly because the reviews were so brutal. I never read it, but the consensus is it's terrible.

Would subsequent works be any better, or just more of the same? Are they the work of a man who had, actually, bottomed out completely -- who had, like Seymour, disappeared into the ether, some higher, more artistic plain, leaving behind only the power of a small but unique ouevre? Would they extend his legacy, or just cheapen the brand?

My guess is it probably would be more of the same, but maybe that's not all it would be. We're talking a period of 45 years, and a lot can happen. Maybe the immediate post-Hapworth books would be bad, but maybe after that there would be something worth saving. All writers go through some rough patches. It will be interesting to learn whether Salinger ever got out of his.

But you wonder, just what kind of books does an established writer write all by himself? Books are written in isolation, of course, but writers are affected in some degree by their audience; a writer can't help but be made at least somewhat self-conscious by his public face, by how he's regarded, and it has some effect on what he chooses to say and how he chooses to say it. Salinger severed that bond, so what he created in the confines of his own self-imposed shell remains a fascinating question.

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