A letter to camp.
One of the first bits of blurb I received for my debut novel described my protagonist as a pop-infatuated Holden Caulfield. This blurb made the top back cover of the book. I get to live with it. The legend invoked from the start.
Not only was it the most flattering review of my writing I’d ever seen, but the suggestion of having written such a character scared the hell out of me. Creating another Holden was never my conscious intent though certainly the foundation for such a character was imprinted on me by the masterpiece the original lives in.
Through the years I’ve always carried a soft spot on my heart for the man that created the icon that is Holden. Writing such a character is exhausting. To speak the truth and humanity that resonates with an audience as that character requires a writer to dig deep into himself and expose the flaws and frailties that most people spend their lives trying to obscure. To break through and share such visceral truth is to leave oneself fully exposed for the world to see. I know this as a reader. I know this as a writer.
The only possible protection after writing in such a way is privacy.
Holden said it perfectly;
Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
While others speculated that Mr. Caulfield’s creator was a genius but altogether mad recluse, I kept a distance. So much so that as a superstitious regard for his privacy I would never refer to him by name in conversation. He was the man in Cornish. The one that isn’t named and wouldn’t even take a letter if I wrote one. Throughout the years I’ve spent writing I’ve confided in close friends that I understand the conditions that would make one desire such a retreat. Sometimes I myself wish for it. At one point I even joked with the SVP of Harper Perennial that if my book went into eight print runs I’d move to Cornish!
Yes, I myself am very curious what fifty years of public silence amounted to for the man. I like to imagine that a writer free from public expectations of publishing might enjoy writing everyday for the drawer. It is a hope that actually puts a smile on my face, knowing that at least one of us made a big enough splash to allow himself that luxury.
Even away from us he provided a half a century of readers and writers an iconic anti-hero to look up to.
Now, I know he wanted to be tossed in to the river, without a grave for us to pilgrimage towards New Hampshire laying flowers and wreathes on Sunday afternoons. But the final and ultimate retreat deserves some kind of memorial.
To Mr. Jerome David Salinger,
Thank you for your legacy of words.
With heartfelt gratitude I would like to humbly present your readers, the writers of The Nervous Breakdown.
RIP, sir. You will be missed, by everybody.
I often think about timing when I think about books and reading. How when you read something matters more than where you read it. What mood you’re in. How old you are. Your worldview at that time.
I can recall reading entire books and not understanding them properly, or liking them very much at all. Books I wasn’t ready for. Books I read before my time. Years later, I would pick up the same exact book and find myself thunderstruck.
And vice versa.
What’s amazing to me about Salinger’s books is how they seem to obliterate this rule, or at the very least alter its geometry. True, I do know a few people who can’t stand any of the guy’s work, who never understood the fuss or felt any urge to pick up the rest after going through the obligatory motions of reading Holden in high school. But there aren’t many of them. And I’m not even sure I trust their judgment in the first place. They might be phony.
For most of us, the Salinger canon lives up to its official billing. Cosmically good, cosmically resonant. The guy was so gifted, and his voice so strong, that timing is rarely an issue when it comes to reading him. The writing is that universal and impeccable. And the shelf-life is obviously tremendous. All these years later, people are still reading in droves, and they’re still feeling thunderstruck and underlining passages and passing along copies to friends.
Me? I just re-read Catcher last year, at the age of 33, over the course of a long weekend, on a whim. Probably hadn’t picked it up in almost two decades. And I’ll be damned if it wasn’t just as enjoyable this time around, if not more so. Like greeting an old friend. It made me feel confident in the evaluations of my youth. (I was right to have liked it as much as I did!)
The other thing Salinger makes me think of? It’s quality, never quantity.
A tip of the cap to an ornery old giant.
As virtually everybody knows, the first sentence of Catcher in the Rye—one of the great opening lines in 20th century American literature for my buck—is a sly nod to my literary idol Charles Dickens:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll 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 getting into it, if you want the truth.
I always admired Salinger’s brass balls for that line. The sentence is like a tribute and a challenge at the same time. And it embraces the bigger conversation of literature, the one that spans eras and centuries. So, after writing the five or six unpublished novels it took me to get good enough to finally have one published (like Pynchon, I was a slow learner, I guess), I knew I wanted to seize the opportunity on the grand stage of literature to settle the score for old Dickens, while paying a winking tribute to Salinger in kind. I know, pretty audacious, right? Like, who’s listening? Hello-ello-ello? Jonathan who? So, let’s just say my stage might have been a little off-Broadway, But whatever, every writer needs his grandiose delusions, so here’s mine, the first line of All About Lulu:
First, I’m going to give you all the Copperfield crap, and I’m not going to apologize for any of it, not one paragraph, so if you’re not interested in how I came to see the future, or how I came to understand that the biggest truth in my life was a lie, or for that matter how I parlayed my distaste for hot dogs into an ’84 RX-7, and a new self-concept, do us both a favor, and just stop now.
So, the long and short of it is: I kind of caught a ride on old Salinger’s coat tails, and I sure would’ve liked the opportunity to thank him for it in person, even if all I got was a grumpy “Yeah, whatever, kid. Get away from my fence.” I also wish I had time to write a proper tribute, but I’m trying to beat Fox News to the punch, here.
So, at least I can make a cheap top-ten list of things that rule about the late great Jerome David Salinger.
10. Voice, voice, voice.
9. Charm. I’d buy anything from Salinger. Hell, I bought “Teddy.”
8. “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read.
7. Nobody could write precocious children like Salinger.
6. I’m just guessing, but I’d say he knew his limits as a writer. They weren’t many.
5. If I could write one story as good as “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” I’d be happy.
4. I wanna know more about that thing with the hot game show host contestant he was stalking.
3. Would’ve loved to have had dinner with J.D. and Harper Lee, and been like: “What the fuck?”
2. You gotta’ hand it to the guy: four slim volumes followed by a disappearing act that lasted decades, and look at the shadow he casts. It wasn’t his publicist.
1. Shit, that’s only nine!
I don’t generally reread books, but I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye probably ten or twelve times. One time I read it out loud. Neither my old writing partner nor my girlfriend at the time had ever read it, so I sat there and read it to them. It took a long time because I had to stop and cry a lot. Nobody else cried, just me. I was okay up until Holden started talking about Allie, and his baseball mitt and all that, at which point I pretty much lost it. And by the end, forget it, it was like my face was a fountain. They both looked at me kinda different after that. Which, I don’t know, seemed kind of unfair. Cry one time reading a book and suddenly everyone acts like you’re a goddam lunatic.
When I was a sophomore in high school, a girl named Dena, amused by some standard-issue angry-young-man barb of mine, said, “My God, you’re just like Holden.” The girls by her side smiled in agreement, but I didn’t know who Holden was. It wasn’t until a few years later, after I’d moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, that I read The Catcher in the Rye and understood Dena’s comparison. Of course, I was only one of the hordes of disaffected youth who identified with Holden Caulfield, but I regarded myself as a special case, in part because I was living a post-punk version of Catcher on Holden’s home turf.
In fact, I wasn’t. Salinger was an uptown writer, and Holden was a maladjusted preppie who passed no sparks with the subculture types that flourished downtown, as they had for at least a century prior to the appearance of Catcher. I was closer in spirit to the Village-based Beats, I decided, especially Kerouac; and Holden’s fractiousness, compared to mine, seemed tepid on second thought, concluding as it did in therapy. Like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, Holden was a dilettantish rebel, unwilling or unable to finally break free of a Brahmin family.
Or so my analysis used to run. Now I see just how much Salinger and the Beats had in common, with their shared interest in Eastern mysticism, and their mutual anticipation of 1960s youth culture, which has influenced the world ever since. And in recent years, the culture has taken another turn—or am I the only person to notice that Salinger’s death coincided with the introduction of the iPad? Will The Catcher in the Rye continue to thrive? One hopes. There are more imperiled kids to catch than ever.
I met the Glass family first: Seymour, Franny, Zooey, Walt, Waker and Boo Boo; Les and Bessie their parents. I wanted to sit at their table and share a meal, curl up in a corner of the living room of their apartment, run my fingers along the books on their shelves. I just wanted to be a Glass and if I couldn’t then the next best thing was writing about them. I made up my own Glass stories. And shared my pathetic scribblings with only my English teacher, Miss Wick, she of the shade-too-black, ill-fitting wig that barely disguised her bald head and the concave chest where breasts should have been, who had slipped me her own worn paperback copies, books she admitted to me that had been hers in college. When I tried to return them she handed them back and said quietly, “Keep them.” Later, she returned my faux Glass stories with a single sentence: find your own voice.
Miss Wick was barely older than I, and felt more like an older sister than my teacher. Before Christmas break she gave me The Catcher in The Rye. I read it five times during those two weeks. The first and second times were straight through in one sitting. The third time through I began to copy passages, the fourth I began to underline, and the fifth I began to memorize. I couldn’t wait to get to Miss Wick’s class, to share what I had read, only to find a substitute who was intent on starting a Shakespeare block of Hamlet followed by Macbeth. It took me a week before I realized Miss Wick was never coming back. I carried that marked up copy of The Catcher in The Rye everywhere, from college to apartments, to my first house. The pages torn, stained and folded, hanging loosely from the binding, and the cover pieced back together with scotch tape.
Years later, writing what would be my first published book, I created a character who taught Holden Caulfield to his ninth grade English class in a school not far from The Natural History Museum and Central Park. I had followed Miss Wick’s suggestion and found my own voice, I voice I owed in great part to the Glass Family and J.D. Salinger.
As a young boy growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my mother would often exclaim, “It’s a perfect day for bananafish,” before we headed out to do something fun like going to the park or a museum or driving into the city to buy a record or a book.
The phrase always had a positive connotation for me, and not only that, but a whimsical, surreal quality that I spent inordinate time picturing in my head. Even though dolphins are not technically “fish,” I imagined the C-shapes of bananas being the same as that of dolphins with dorsal fins leaping into wet sunshine. To this day, anytime I see bananas, I see dolphins, down to the blackened stem of the banana representing the snout of a dolphin. I asked my mother many times what the phrase meant and why she said it but she would merely smile her Sophia Loren smile and ambiguously pawn it off as something exciting, hopeful or somesuch.
As an American Lit major at San Francisco State University many years later, we were assigned J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories to read and analyze. Imagine my surprise when checking the table of contents and finding my mother’s quirky phrase as the title to the first story in the collection. It was then I immediately assumed it represented an idiom or some strangely outdated vernacular that my mother’s generation utilized when something good was going to happen.
After Seymour Glass has the phone conversation with his mother and then heads out to the beach to share an innocent yet mystical encounter with a purified little girl at the glistening tide in the blue sunshine and proclaims to her, “It’s a perfect day for bananafish,” I immediately pictured the curved dolphin fruits ecstatically leaping in a halcyonic bliss state symbolizing all that is beautiful, untainted and utopian. It was an idyllic scene, uncannily resembling the exact sentiment of my mother’s positive expression.
Until Seymour returned to his hotel room to blow his brains out. Jesus.
I called my mom and told her that I had finally read the story. “But why did you always say that, Mother? And in reference to good times?”
“Because, my dear son, since your sister died, I never knew when any future fun time together would be our last.”
My mother still uses this phrase, as do I.
Rest Valerie. And J.D. you can rest now too.
I had this idea that I would find J.D. Salinger. I’d buy a beat-up ’70s VW van. I’d drive to New Hampshire. I’d put on my best come-hither smile and my shortest skirt and I’d ring his doorbell. I’d charm him. I’d heard he had a thing for young girls. And I was, after all, an “absolutely Vassar type.” Maybe, I thought, he’d let me call him ‘Jerry.’
Yesterday J.D. Salinger died. And with him the last of my childhood fantasies.
I’ve loved J.D. Salinger since I was fourteen. Fourteen being the age that most people fall in love with him. After Catcher in the Rye, I devoured Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories. I even read Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. John Updike famously wrote in the New York Times book review, “Salinger loves the [Glass family] more than G-d loves them…he loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.” But if Salinger loved the Glasses too much, so did we, his devoted readers.
Most people grow out of J.D. They grow up and begin to see him as something childish. Something to put away. I never did, though. Franny and Zooey is still the first book that comes to mind when I’m asked my favorite. I was never sure that I fully understood it. The mysticism always slightly mystified me. But I loved it. That is, I love it. It is, as Lane Coutell might think, “unimpeachably right.” And, “so much the better, not too categorically cashmere sweater and flannel skirt.”
If you’ve read it, you’ve never forgotten. Like every other person of my generation and so many before mine, I read Catcher in the Rye during my first year of high school. I had learned to expect the worst of any book assigned for school, but after Salinger’s first sentence hooked me, I devoured the novel. I sat up in bed that night—dorky headlamp switched on—and ripped through the book greedily.
Holden, like the best Dickensian characters, leaps from the page. Early on, he declares, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
It happens with Catcher, but it isn’t just Salinger you wish to know, it’s his protagonist. Holden, in his disgust with the adult world, somehow charms you. He sounds like someone you’d like to pal around with. It doesn’t really feel like Salinger created a fictional character as much as he found a living, breathing human being on the street and wrote about him. Our vague sense that we’ve met Holden before—that’s the magic of the novel.
I remember that a few years ago, I read an intriguing (though upsetting) article in the New York Times about how high school kids were no longer connecting with Holden. They found him to be a “whiner” and were bored by his outdated language. Around this time or perhaps a year after, when Junot Diaz’s debut novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was out and picking up ecstatic reviews, I found one article that suggested Oscar Wao replace Catcher as the quintessential novel of adolescence. I had read Oscar Wao and, like everyone, was wildly impressed. But replace Holden? Never. I felt then, and still feel, that some 1950s expressions (I’m not sure I’ve ever in my life called something “crumby”) are hardly enough to ruin the effect of Holden’s voice. His honesty and angst have stayed with me.
Catcher is merely the centerpiece of a body of work that is often surprising, in the best sense of the word. Read Salinger’s story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” It’s the same writer, and yet, another world entirely from the rebellious musings of a kid in the city. And it’ll leave you emotionally spent.
If anything, Salinger’s reclusion is less upsetting than his lack of recent output. We miss not the chance to have had another literary celebrity, but the gift of more writing. You can’t help but hope that sometime in the next few weeks a visitor or family member will unearth an unpublished Salinger manuscript. But if not, we still have what he did give us, and “goddam,” that’s a lot.
Book freaks remember the first time they read something better than the first time they fucked someone. Your first fuck is usually quick, drunk and ugly; but when you read a special book for the first time it sticks with you. Read it again and again and you still always remember that first time.
I think everyone remembers the first time they read The Catcher in the Rye. It’s one of those special books. You read it when you’re young and it helps you; it touches you. Holden Caulfield touched a lot of adolescent lives and made the world make a little more sense.
There is no fitting way for an amateur like me to pay tribute to J.D. Salinger, and with that fact acknowledged, I am compelled to try anyway. I pretended to read Catcher in the Rye in high school. No clue how I got away with it. I found Holden Caulfield unbearable, self-absorbed, pretentious and awful in every way, and that was in the first ten pages, so I put the book down and refused to pick it up again for over 10 years. In fact, I didn’t read it until this past summer at age 26.
On the other hand, on first reading Nine Stories I developed a morbid crush on Seymour Glass. Of course, this meant I would also read Franny and Zooey, fall unreasonably in love with the whole chain smoking Glass family, and have many drunken arguments with friends about how Catcher was not Salinger’s best work by a long shot. Hell, just this past weekend, I ranted at my unsuspecting mother-in-law about how Catcher shouldn’t be taught to ninth graders because “just because a character is high school aged doesn’t mean the story is right for all high school kids.” I wish Catcher hadn’t become Salinger’s most celebrated work, but that’s the way it is when you let the public school curriculum determine what is a classic.
Despite knowing extraordinarily little about Salinger’s personal life, I was sorry to hear he died. Some of us work awfully hard to write the little pieces we offer up to the world here on TNB, on our blogs, in literary magazines or just in our journals that no one else will read. We struggle to craft characters or to shed light on real people, and we painstakingly plot out the lives of people real and imagined, and we strive to tell stories that we believe matter. And even if you hated Holden Fucking Caulfield, you had to take your hat off to Mr. Salinger. Sir, I am sorry to see you go. I hope your last days were peaceful, and I hope you know that your work will live on, quite possibly forever.
J. D. Salinger was like the Beatles, and I mean he was Beatles-Big. He was a foundation for those of us who grew up in that gear switching era between the 50s and 60s. Like the Beatles, if you were to subtract him from our lives, our days would not have shone nearly so bright; that’s how big he was. I can’t even imagine such a thing. All that David Copperfield crap. He gave us permission to thumb our noses and burn bridges as we built our own and know that it was OK. He was the cool uncle we never had.
Thanks J.D., thanks for the Glass family, thanks for raising high the beam and thanks most of all for the banana fish. There are traces of Salinger in my DNA and I’m grateful for that. Adios old friend.
I’m British, and as such I grew up and received education in Britain. At school, neither J.D Salinger nor Catcher in the Rye received much attention. Our schools mostly focus on Shakespeare and our own (pretty impressive) literary canon.
I discovered Catcher in the Rye, like most of my favourite novels, out of my own cultural curiosity. I read Catcher in the Rye when I was fifteen because I’d learnt that Mark Chapman had read it before cruelly aiming his gun just wide of Yoko Ono and taking down the second-most-talented Beatle after Ringo Starr. My parents had it on their bookshelf, so I pulled it out and I read it in one night; it was the first of only a handful of books that I literally couldn’t put down. I started reading at 9pm and didn’t go to sleep until 5am.
After a few pages I began to forget that Holden Caulfield wasn’t real. I was hooked. We were best friends. I wanted to be just like him. But then the book ended, and I was cruelly reminded that my cool teenage friend was actually a middle-aged man who hadn’t been seen in public since before I was fucking born.
I’ve re-read Catcher in the Rye twice since then. I’ve hated it both times—I’ve hated Holden. It’s not my attitude towards the novel that’s changed, but my attitude towards Holden. He still seems like a real person, every time. How many writers manage that?! Creating a character that is more real than they are? It doesn’t matter that Salinger is dead. He’s like Jesus—a big deal back in the day, but what’s he done recently?
It doesn’t matter. Nothing can take Holden Caulfield away from us. Whether you love him or hate him, he’s real. he exists.
And as long as he exists, Salinger lives on.
There are few writers who capture the collective consciousness and devotion of not only their peers, but the unborn and soon-to-love. There are even fewer writers who do this with one lone—and inspiring—novel. Harper Lee. Sylvia Plath. Emily Bronte. John Kennedy Toole. And J.D. Salinger.
Why only one big novel? One smashing success? Some writers may not have been able to recover from the blinding success of this first book and were unable to produce another. Some perhaps were drawn into the intoxicating, lazy world of the well-known and easily distracted. And some, well some may have found they didn’t need to try to rival their well-received and much loved literary creations simply because that book had a life all its own, a perfection mysterious, and their work was done. They’ve left the literary landscape a changed and enriched place, and have done so just as well with this one book as others have with a dozen.
Some authors, like Salinger, arrive at the perfect moment, dazzle us, then quietly go.
And this is for all of us—with love and squalor.
For me, Franny and Zooey will always be the one. I think it’s the brooding—or, more accurately, it’s the seeing someone brood better than you. It’s that sobering effect of consoling someone who really has problems. The book matched the others for style, but had the special advantage of being exactly the right level of angst, curiosity and intellectual longing for exactly the right angsty, curious, intellectual time in my young life. I carried it with me on my travels abroad. As it fit snugly into my walking coat, I read it, again, in pubs.
His style was strictly prose, with qualification after qualification. He made an art of the after-thought. He glued emotions with a comma. Mostly, his work showed me the potential delight of really looking into one’s own perspective. As I read him, here and there, a line would get me, make me pause. They were the kind of lines that were funny, but only so much as they were a reflection on my own inner monologue. It’s that kind of deeply personal amusement that comes from being curious and enjoying the world; it’s also from being the type of person who is accustomed to keeping most of one’s curiosity to themselves for fear of being ostracized, as in, “Shut up, Thomas. You’re always saying such weird things.”
Four books is what we got from Salinger and I, if I avoid my natural selfishness, think they are enough. Like most impressionable readers/fans, I’ve wanted more. I begrudged his reclusiveness but, like so much of his writing, it brought me a beautiful irony of having to grow up on my own, to finish the work myself. One of my first short stories was about a young man getting an opportunity to interview a notoriously reclusive author, an elegant hurricane of a man, all passion and arms. I wrote it about a year after my own father had died, when I was still sorting out what it meant to be a man without guidance. I think with that story there was always a feeling of something missing, some answer to a mystery not made public. The answer was my own writing and its want to develop. Maybe now I can finish it.
I never read Catcher in the Rye in high school, maybe it seemed like a boys’ book or maybe almost already old-fashioned? But in college someone told me I had to read it; everything by Norman Mailer, too.
And I was really struck by Holden’s homophobia, but then I was going through a period of figuring out that every boy I’d been in love with was gay as a box of birds (and that so, by the way, was my own dad), so I was sensitive to this kind of thing.
I was being guided in my literary choices by my big brother Hank, who’d come home from Europe politically radicalized, and seemed very genious-y and sophisticated.
We were living together on a house near the water in Long Beach with our mom and our little brother George. Being Bohemian, I went nuts for the Glass family, falling completely in love with Seymour, looking up from the pages with the shock of recognition, thinking Oh my God: it’s us.
I don’t like Catcher in the Rye.
I’ll go further than that. I think it is the most overrated book I have ever read. It is a dull story about a whiny kid who deserves a good slap.
I first read it when I was in my late teens. I wondered what all the fuss was about. I re-read it a couple of years ago. Still didn’t get it. Sorry, it just isn’t very good. Friends, some of them successful and acclaimed novelists, tell me that I should read his short stories, but if his multi-million selling masterpiece leaves me cold, why waste time with anything else? I have far too many books to read as it is, and some of them might actually be good.
But here’s the thing, I really like J.D. Salinger. Unlike most other lauded yet over-rated writers—Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Martin Amis, to name just a few—he decided to do the hermit thing and leave the fawning literati and obsessive fans behind. I’d like to think he secretly agrees with me and can’t work out what all the fuss was about, but I guess he just got bored with it all. And that is kinda cool.
And while I don’t actually think much of his writing, I do have to accept that his influence, like the Beatles with music, has helped to spark some of the writers and books I do really love, Haruki Murakami being the most important. And I owe him a stiff drink for that.
My first love was Holden Caulfield.
I was a junior in high school when I read Catcher in the Rye for the first time. I remember exactly what the book looked like – a battered paperback, maroon jacket, gold lettering in an italic typeface. I remember thinking that it had to be better than The Scarlet Letter, which we had just finished reading the quarter before (Hester Prynne was, quite possibly, the most awful literary character I’d encountered at that point in my life). So I opened the book at lunch that day, thinking I’d read a few pages and go from there.
I finished it that night. I couldn’t put it down and the more I read, the more I fell in love with Holden Caulfield. Head over heels in love with a literary character the likes of which I’d never met. I identified with him; he was moody and witty and sarcastic and smart and he felt displaced in the world around him. It was like finding your soul mate buried amongst a pile of words and punctuation. I was heartbroken when I finished the novel. It was like saying good-bye to a beloved friend.
I’ve read other novels since then about the same ideas, the journey from childhood into adulthood and the many paths our lives take when we forget to pay attention to the road. None have compared, though, to that battered paperback, and I’m fairly certain none ever will. You know what they say about first loves – they stay with you forever.
So thank you, Mr. Salinger, for the introduction.
Sad but true. For several weeks when I was 15, I could write in the voice of Holden Caulfield. That was entertaining as hell. This skill knocked out my friend Susan, who took French in a classroom opposite the one in which I learned civics. We exchanged notes in the hallway before we walked to our next period. As she read my note and giggled the whole time, I suspect she found my thoughts droll but was most amused by the Caulfieldian syntax and diction I mimicked so well. Holden would have called me a phony.
Of course, I related to Holden’s cynicism about the world, but that’s not the only reason I’ve always remembered him. J.D. Salinger did something that I have not yet achieved as a writer. His character is a master class in voice. There is an unmistakable consistency of vocabulary, syntax, and cadence from start to finish. The language of the times is right there. But it’s deeper than that. Holden couldn’t have shared his restlessness and frustration in formal prose. The power would have evaporated. The Catcher in the Rye has an oral quality. It’s Holden telling a story to a stranger, the reader, and he wants to be understood on his terms. All these years later, we’re still listening. We still understand the pain—and the humor—in that voice. Thank you, Mr. Salinger.
In seventh grade, I pulled a yellowed copy of The Catcher in the Rye off my parents’ bookshelf. The Signet Book cover featured an illustrated picture of Holden Caulfield with his red cap, on backwards, carrying his oversized suitcase as he stood before the entrance to what was vaguely depicted as a peep show. Half the real estate of the cover was taken up with the text: “This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart—but you will never forget it.” The whole design, with its pulpy tagline, made it look like an especially gripping Hardy Boys mystery. My dad encouraged me to read it, but I was only looking for a book that would be a quick read for a report due in Language Arts the following week. Then I could return to my earnest Tears for Fears listening sessions in my room. I brought the book into my Language Arts teacher, who needed to approve all selections. She took one glance at mine and said, “I’m afraid there’s some foul language there. You’ll need to choose something else.” Naturally, I was now intrigued. I dove into the book on the bus ride home.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized how fully both the Signet cover and my English teacher had missed the point. I forgot about the swearing and my curiosity over what the word “flit” meant, as I fell into a story that offered up someone who was so real to me at that age it made me uncomfortable. The book was neither bawdy nor shocking nor necessarily heart-breaking. It was just an actual boy presented inside the pages. It didn’t add up.
By the grace of other stories that would follow, I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that somewhere Franny is still faintish and mouthing words to the ceiling while her date thinks he’s helping. I can still frighten myself trying to picture the weirdly deformed face of the Laughing Man. I can still see Ramona Glass and her thick eyeglasses. Having since tried to make sense of it many times over, I also still see Holden disgusted at his roommate Stradlater’s rusty shaving blades and the look on his face when he uses the word “phony,” as real and present to me as the smell of the yellowed, dog-eared pages of the books.
Two days ago I drove past a store which has been an anchor of the neighborhood I live in for the last two decades. A sign on the door said that the proprietor, Greg Klaus, had died and the future of his store was unknown. It was a shocking revelation; I had bought a birthday present for my son there last month, and Greg was there puttering around his nice collection of eccentricities: Totoro stuffed animals, locally made cards and bags, peculiar tchotckes that embraced cuteness and darkness in the same package. And, upon doing the requisite Google search, I discovered that Greg had commit suicide.
That he died as a man in his prime was shock enough, but suicide is always so jarring. And then Salinger died, and I re-read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” In it, Seymour Glass’s wife is assuring her mother on the phone that Seymour is not dangerous, that his nervous breakdown isn’t making him erratic. Meanwhile, Seymour is on the beach, talking with his most ardent admirer, Sybil Carpenter, a child with whom he clearly has an excellent rapport. He spins enchantingly surreal images for the girl, just the sort of tales that make a child love someone, about the elusive bananafish, whose own insatiable appetite for bananas not only gives it its name, but brings on its demise.
And in a tender moment, Seymour kisses the arch on the girl’s foot, saying they’re done for the day.
“Goodbye,” said Sybil, and ran without regret in the direction of the hotel.
Seymour walks back to his hotel room, has a terse, bizarre conversation with a hotel guest, and then blows his brains out on the bed next to his sleeping wife.
It is shocking. It is jarring. The complete ease with which Seymour converses with the child but the unease with which he communicates with the hotel guest expose the fractures that have surfaced in Seymour, presumably brought on by his unmentioned experiences in World War II. Seymour is capable of kindness and frivolity, but even within that is the seed of his tragic inner being: the bananafish must, by its very nature, bring on its own end.
I read that Greg Klaus was similarly tortured. No one but those closest to him knew what lurked within, but his family was not surprised when he took his life. And Greg, filling his store with appealing hand-picked objects which embraced both his approachability and edginess, like ashtrays imprinted with adorable children smoking cigarettes, hinted at a dark sensibility that would end badly.
Salinger’s ability to capture the dichotomy of Seymour’s appealing sensitivity and the unease with which Seymour lives within the world couldn’t be a better synthesis of the future that lurks beneath those trapped in the snare of their own anguish. Salinger didn’t die as Seymour or Greg did, by his own hand, but I imagine that to go to where Seymour went, he must have embraced the dark as well. Perhaps now Salinger can finally rest.
Salinger made a Presbyterian minister say “Fuck.”
In the early sixties I took a course from Robert McAfee Brown, titled something like “Christianity and Modern Literature.” We read the big guns—Sartre, Camus, Faulkner, Green. And Salinger.
Brown, a Presbyterian minister in the first wave of sixties radical clerics, was offering novel takes on Christianity. I, a small-town boy who had never paid much attention to religion, and had not previously read Salinger, was surprised to learn that a novel about an American teenage boy could embody religious-philosophical concepts much as, for example, The Stranger could.
Brown lectured effectively about The Catcher in the Rye – Holden Caulfield as Christ Figure. But what I’ve never forgotten is when Brown cleared his throat and said to us, “I’m going to quote Salinger, and that means saying some words that don’t come trippingly off my tongue.”
He then read “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world.”
So thank you J.D., for showing me that the large issues can be tackled in small forms, and thanks, too, for making R.M. demonstrate that talking about true things, however uncomfortable, can and must be done. And thanks to both of you for reminding me of the manifold ways that times change. “Fuck” has entered the mainstream, and Holden Caulfield seems never to have left it.
I do know
for the winter…
this way old Holden
over the cliff
into the river
no flowers for you
onward to Jesus
& Judas on the Carousel
I was an art major. And a pretty good one too. My oldest boy was just entering the world. I was around twenty years old. There was no way to pay for his birth so I took a job in a factory and quit school.
I hated the factories. Twelve hour shifts. Six days a week. The ka-chunk ka-chunk of machinery was killing me. I wore earplugs. My hands were cut on paperboard, then later, Fiberglas. People died in the factories, were severely injured. One man was carried out on a stretcher after he went insane.
J.D. Salinger’s works sort of saved me after I found them in a used bookstore. His characters were a mess. My chaotic factory life was a mess. The people around me seemed to have stepped from his very pages. During that time I suddenly wanted to become a writer. I still do.
I’m much better at painting. But word-painting. Now that’s hard. But somehow, Salinger made me feel like I had something worth capturing. I never even realized until his death that his works were what I was reading that really inspired me to finally get out of the factories and into a new direction in college and life.
For me, Holden Caulfield wasn’t just a symbol of teenage alienation. I think he simply spoke truth people didn’t want to hear. There are a lot of phonies in the world, and they find plenty of “success” at not being truthful. Holden told the truth…at his own peril.
I wish Salinger would have written more. Still, his world view helped shaped mine. None of us could ever really know him as a man, but as a writer, with just one book, he dazzled us with his brilliance.
In 1953, the year Nine Stories came out, J.D. Salinger moved—one might even say fled—from New York to Cornish, a small town in the backwoods of New Hampshire. At the age of 34, he had swapped vocations, fiction writer for recluse, and he proved just as successful at the latter as he’d been with the former.
It wasn’t enough to remove himself. He also lashed out at anyone who threatened his privacy, going so far as to copyright his own letters—you can read them yourself, all of them, at the Library of Congress—so the biographer Ian Hamilton could not use them in his book (and if you’re interested in Salinger and have not had the pleasure, run-don’t-walk and get yourself a copy of In Search Of J.D. Salinger).
No matter how you slice it, this was odd behavior. One minute he was at some swanky Upper East Side soirée, vying with Charlie Chaplin for the attentions of Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona, the next he was holed up in a shack in the woods, gone from the public eye for good.
A mythology sprung from his vanishing. Every so often, new speculation promised to explain the unexplainable—why a successful and beloved man of letters would fall completely off the grid: He was a pedophile. He was a spy. He was a war criminal. He was a shellshock sufferer. He was an agoraphobe. He was Thomas Pynchon.
The truth is not as romantic as all that. In her memoir, his daughter Margaret describes Salinger as a tortured soul, spiritually adrift, seduced by one fad religion after another—the sanctimonious voice of “Teddy” to the tenth power. He was lost. He was damaged. He did not have all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.
We didn’t want to hear that about a man who wrote such effortlessly gorgeous prose, whose ear for dialogue was without parallel—a man whose notice we coveted, whose success we envied, whose characters we adored. If he couldn’t handle the world, what would the world do to us?
Say this about Salinger: when decided to leave, he left, and that was that. This was not The Who’s “Farewell” tour. And while royalties from Catcher in the Rye alone amounted to some $250,000 a year—more than enough spending money for a guy who’d lived in the same cabin for fifty years—he could have made a lot more if he’d sold the film rights. If he’d allowed them to make a Catcher movie. He never did, never even entertained the idea, not even when Steven Spielberg himself made overtures.
Jerome David Salinger was not a sell-out. Which is to say, not a phony.
Holden would have approved.