By Ross Barkan
J.D. Salinger meant a lot of things to a lot of different people. For some, his most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye, was an anthem and a reflection of their own angst, an ode to alienation in a confusing, inauthentic world. For others, it was whiney and shallow, outdated squawking by a rich white boy who just needed to shut up. No matter what, you had some opinion of Holden Caufield and the slew of “phonies” that pervaded his post-war universe.
The Catcher in the Rye might not have been Salinger’s best work. The notoriously reclusive author, who passed away on January 27 at the age of 91, published Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Salinger refused to publish anything else after 1965, leading the rest of his life in seclusion in the small town of Cornish, New Hampshire. The world was left to contemplate his work without the voice of the author.
What spoke to people most about Salinger’s books was his sympathy for the outcast, the individual who could not conform to modern society. Salinger’s protagonists were never ignorant: they were enlightened, too enlightened, cursed with a power to discern the twisted flaws and hypocrisies of the seemingly benevolent creatures that floated in and out of their lives. Perhaps his prose was so enthralling because it sang with authenticity; after all, every protagonist of a Salinger work was a manifestation of the man himself. Examining Salinger’s oeuvre will not work through the lens of New Criticism. Artist and work were one.
Whether you smoked in the bathtub with Zooey or held back a tear for the prodigiously talented Seymour as he told little Sybil the story of the “bananafish” before blowing his brains out in his hotel room, you knew that Salinger had an ear for you, the young and misunderstood. Salinger will always be an author for the youth. He is a writer for the idealistic and the cynical, capturing the bundle of energies and contradictions that inhabit a soul still growing, still changing. Some might view the mysticism of Franny and Zooey as pretentious and shallow. Whether it is or not, the point remains that this philosophy meant something remarkable to the siblings, a way to grapple with a suffocating world. The adolescent searches for answers that grim adulthood can’t answer. Salinger was searching too.
And he was anything but a phony. Holden Caufield’s desire to move away to a cabin in the woods and live there for the rest of his life was eventually realized by Salinger once he was independently wealthy enough to do so. Fed up with fame and the public life, Salinger, who told the editors of the Saturday Review that he was “good and sick” of seeing his photograph on the dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye, retreated to the wilderness to live in relative solitude. His daughter claimed he continued to write for his own pleasure. At long last he had freed himself from the society he could no longer relate to, discovering peace in privacy.
Salinger will be remembered for his contribution to American letters, his mastery of a rambling stream-of-consciousness that made Modernism accessible. He captured the rhythms of speech as well as anyone. His characters weren’t caricatures : they were worlds unto themselves, tragic geniuses trying to regain their innocence in an age without any.
For that J.D. Salinger will always matter.