Today marks the 4th anniversary of the death of great American novelist, J.D. Salinger. Last week, “American Masters” featured Salinger’s prolific writing career—published and classified—and his rather precarious personal life. The documentary predictively failed to evade highlighting the heightened paradox Salinger endured till death: his quest to escape the limelight, which made him ever more famous, affording him Howard Hughes’ designation of a recluse. But was Salinger truly reclusive, or had he simply gone Galt (reference to “Atlas Shrugged”)?
Salinger’s exit from the literary conclave of New York City, to the secluded landscape of Cornish, New Hampshire perplexed the public for over fifty years, fueling conspiracy theories surrounding the so-called mysterious author’s elusive life. Fans thirsted for a “Catcher” sequel—maybe a short story in what became his home publication after much perseverance: The New Yorker. Yet Salinger refused to succumb to society’s demands (having stopped publishing in 1965), all the while tirelessly producing countless stories—most of which, never intended to be published—for the rest of his life, likely writing vicariously through his beloved, some argue all too real, fictional Glass family.
But what we ought to admire about J.D. Salinger was his unwavering ability to focus his stories on his own truths, cutting against the stale and popularized vernacular of most published works. His assiduous mission of publishing in the prestigious New Yorker reaped a fruitful kinship after several rejection letters and one rogue break-through story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” As the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik states in a Charlie Rose interview, “He chose to dramatize the interior life of the soldiers as they came home in conditions of enormous prosperity, and at the same time in some kind of spiritual anguish.” Salinger’s participation in World War II—having fought through D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge—undoubtedly left a mark, as it did with any soldier, loosely informing his ensuing works, such as the tragic demise of revered Seymour Glass, unable to bear his marriage subsequent to his return from the armed forces. Rather than approaching war directly and sensationally, he portrayed the tension soldiers faced upon arriving home, providing a more relatable narrative to the feelings of most Americans at the time (not just the soldier’s).
This ability to relate on an authentic, even rudimentary level informed Salinger’s writing of “The Catcher in the Rye,” providing a timeless friend to adamantly misunderstood and naively dubious adolescents. While Holden was written as Salinger realized, many readers suspended the character and adopted Holden as themselves. Holden became the modern day Huckleberry Finn and Nick Carraway, echoing their precocious and trying leaps into hypocrisy, also known as the adult world. For such a seemingly evasive public figure, Salinger’s fearless emotional underpinnings, coupled with his appetite for bizarre humor, connected to individuals in a way that changed American literature. But it was Salinger’s ability to retain the original integrity of his stories that preserved the character people would identify with for decades.
After publishing several times in the New Yorker, and much success with “Catcher,” Salinger was finally able to materialize Holden’s “Walden-esc” dream of owning “a little cabin somewhere with the dough [he] made and live there for the rest of [his] life.” Although Holden’s intention was to avoid, “any…stupid conversation with anybody,” according to the documentary, Salinger engaged with whomever he wanted, and was cherished by his Cornish community, evidenced by their aggressively protective deportment towards anyone seeking Salinger’s unwarranted attention.
The reality spectators neglect to grasp in the midst of an ageless pursuit to achieve and prolong one’s fame, is Salinger’s unique aptitude to respect his self-interest and mature beyond the emptiness of acceptance from fans and literary critics alike. Salinger’s success enabled him to continue writing for himself with the fortune of disbanding the distraction and unsettling closeness of an audience. Salinger told the Times, “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
Yet this defiant loyalty to his self-interest produced the unintentional consequence of a rebelliously cynical, rationally sensitive character that became the icon of successive generations…the abounding irony of the quintessential loner. As Gopnik explained, the ethos of Salinger’s writing maintained that a truly courageous writer “writes the one story that matters most crucially to his heart and his experience,” not for the “fashion of the time” or to be “well-reviewed”. Salinger himself said he wanted to write a “good” book, not a bestseller. He understood what Gopnik articulated: “Your authentic expression is your real material.”
Consequently, it is no wonder Salinger tearfully ran out of the office (as told in the documentary) when the initial publisher for “Catcher” wanted to change what was Salinger’s cumulative life experience, under the notion that Holden was “crazy.” Salinger conceded that writing Holden was an incredible relief; hence, calling Holden crazy was tantamount to calling Salinger mad. Regardless, in true Salinger form, he upheld his convictions and the experiences that informed his work by choosing another publisher.
Moreover, the seminal difference between Salinger and the reader is the investment he made in himself. Salinger’s success is rooted in what was his ability to channel his keen sensibility and adept observations of his life experiences towards his dream of writing “the next great American novel.” Salinger’s overarching theme—the possibility of making sense of such a “corrupt” and “phony” world “through unself-conscious innocence” (Gopnik)—encouraged the redemptive hope we all desire. Readers can retreat into Salinger’s youthful pages of enlightened innocence from the harsh realities that made Holden so uneasy.
[pullquote] Salinger the ultimate individual—a transcendental virtue the American spirit has always championed.[/pullquote]
Nevertheless, this was not enough for much of the public and Salinger’s abundant fan base, who conjured an unjustified sense of entitlement and ownership to Salinger’s every thought, written phrase or reluctant word of advice. Human nature orders individuals to look for external answers, affording authors like J.D. Salinger, or entities like the government, too much credibility and power. In reality, no one can provide someone with better answers than he or she can for him or herself, and no one else should do the work. While Salinger’s ominous time in WWII and his resentfully privileged youth shaped the unjust and phony lens through which Holden and the Glass family see the world, Salinger could only pose the existential questions and predicaments that envelop those characters. As my 11th grade English teacher taught, “Literature is to act as both a window and a mirror.”
People—like the man in the documentary—who unfairly deemed Salinger responsible for purporting solutions for their misguided existence, grossly violate Holden’s tenant of questioning authority. Salinger’s plea of only being a fiction writer and not wanting to dictate lives evidences how in touch he was with the human condition. The minute an earthly entity claims omniscience, the second one should question. Individuals need to reflect upon Salinger’s work to introspectively find their own ways, rather than relying upon him.
In light of the anniversary of his death, J.D. Salinger’s legacy should stress his unmatched contributions to American literature, his resolute pursuit of his American Dream and his uncompromised human experience woven into the tales of Holden and the Glass family. Upon his passing, Salinger’s literary agent recalled: “Salinger had remarked that he was in this world but not of it.” Salinger’s resistance to cultural norms and rejection of societal demands, like it or not, crafted the stories we painfully cherish and contributed to the mystique that is J.D. Salinger. He was the ultimate individual—a transcendental virtue the American spirit has always championed.
Despite his non-conformist nature, the subtle tenderness Seymour shares with Sybil, or protective curiosity Holden shares with Phoebe, exemplifies Salinger’s sensitive F-A-C-U-L-T-I-E-S, and anchors our cynical fears about adulthood. Salinger was not necessarily a recluse, but simply refused to “prostitute” himself like D.B. Like Holden, he employed a shield of isolation. His stubborn intentionality with words and fervent protection of his characters were a means to guard his voice, which he left unchallenged to the flashlights beneath bed covers of longing possibilities: “Sleep tight, ya morons!”