1.30.2010

brief thoughts on the passing of j d salinger

I wasn't able to digest the death of the great writer J. D. Salinger, as I was mourning my hero Howard Zinn.

I love Catcher in the Rye, and Franny and Zooey, and Seymour Glass. All live very vividly in my memory. Salinger's passing reminds me that it's time to re-read Catcher for the however-many-th time.

I would also use the occasion of mentioning Catcher to plug Rule of the Bone, by Russell Banks. Bone is Holden for another generation. He is the grandson of Huck Finn and the son of Holden Caulfield.

I acknowledge Salinger and his brief, enormous contribution to our literature. But I can't say I'll miss him, or that his passing is a loss. How can we miss someone we haven't seen in 50 years? Perhaps Salinger's decision to cease contributing to our literary wealth and withdraw from the public was a loss. But with that choice, he became as least as famous for being unknown and unseen than for his justly famous book. For many people, Salinger's reclusive life in New Hampshire became a commentary on publishing, fame, celebrity, America, what have you. But whether that was his intention, we can never know.

All I can say about J. D. Salinger is that I hope he was content. I hope he felt his choice was a positive one.

Seeing his youthful photo in the obituaries, contrasted by the senior but still vigorous Howard Zinn, I couldn't help but compare what they gave the world, and find Salinger lacking. That's unfair of me, no doubt, but by contrast with Zinn, Salinger's reclusivity seems like an egotistical indulgence.

20 comments:

impudent strumpet said...

I just have to add the Onion's take.

L-girl said...

Excellent. Funny and somehow touching.

M@ said...

Yeah, I agree with your comparison of Salinger and Zinn. Not that anyone has the responsibility to contribute to the betterment of society (as artists and historians can and do); but it's nice if they can manage it.

I read Nine Stories when I was late in high school and I was stunned. I actually remember where I was when I read "For Esme, with Love and Squalor". Reading those stories was one of many steps in my developing and maturing as a writer, but it was an important one. It was one of the times when I knew I was in the presence of mastery of the art of writing.

But Catcher in the Rye -- I was about 25 or 26 when I tried that one. I hated it. I got to around the two-thirds point, and I couldn't bear any more. I put it down and never picked it up again.

As with many things artistic, one's response is personal, and at best only somewhat reflects on the art itself. But I simply cannot understand how that book gained such literary stature; and how it could have come from the same author as Nine Stories.

Not demanding a defence of the book, of course, nor am I picking away at Salinger as an author -- just saying, it's one of those mysteries in life that I've never managed to figure out.

L-girl said...

Right. No one has an obligation to interact with the world and try to create change. I just have a hard time admiring those who don't.

Catcher, to me, is a young-adult novel. Perhaps the best young-adult novel ever? But meant to be read when you are an alienated teen, and if read later, then when you're in touch with the alienated teen within you.

But go figure. I know many people who find Huck Finn boring and unreadable. Or Grapes of Wrath. (They're idiots, of course...)

KIDDING

Esme is... ah well. It just is. So, so... *sigh*

L-girl said...

But I simply cannot understand how that book gained such literary stature

This is me on White Noise, or anything written by Don DeLillo.

M@ said...

Catcher, to me, is a young-adult novel... meant to be read when you are an alienated teen, and if read later, then when you're in touch with the alienated teen within you.

I kind of wondered about this. In a way it's a shame I didn't get around to it when I was an alienated teen. I certainly spent enough time as a teen being alienated.

Esme is... ah well. It just is. So, so... *sigh*

Yeah. I think I'd better go dig that copy of Nine Stories out.

M@ said...

(Note: re-read "Esme" tonight. Holy crap yeah. No wonder it affected me so much. It's just about the perfect short story -- like Chekhov perfect.

Say what you like about Salinger. That is an amazing short story -- not to be missed.)

L-girl said...

He was a great writer. I should re-read that, too.

I think I will put it on my "read between terms" priority list.

A Conformer said...

This is me on White Noise, or anything written by Don DeLillo.

I loved White Noise. And Underworld, too.
I hated Catcher in The Rye when I first read it (around 16 or so), then somebody told me the translation is shite, so I reread it around 21, and was nonplussed.
And I loved White Noise (:

L-girl said...

I loved White Noise. And Underworld, too.

Of course you did! It goes with your territory.

There's a lot between White Noise and Underworld, too.

James said...

Salinger's reclusivity seems like an egotistical indulgence.

I dunno, I think this only follows if one can argue that Salinger owed the world something.

He had a bigger impact on society than 99+% of the humans who've ever lived, I think that's not bad.

L-girl said...

Yes, that's a very valid way of looking at it, too. He didn't owe the world anything, certainly not his writing or his privacy.

I personally don't admire the choice, but he wasn't on this earth to win my admiration!

James said...

The comic strip Sheldon posted an irreverant take on JDS, and a follow-up on the likely fallout of Salinger's death.

I'm not a Salinger fan, myself, (though not a detractor, either), but someone I am a fan of took a similar route after his time in the spotlight: Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes. After he decided that C&H had had a long enough run, he retired the strip and retired himself to a small town in Ohio to paint. I'd love it if he were to come out of retirement, but only if he felt he could produce something worthwhile, not just because fans demand it.

A few years ago a reporter interviewed another favourite of mine, comic song writer (and mathematician) Tom Lehrer. He asked Lehrer why he had stopped performing. Lehrer replied that he simply ran out of songs. He'd written some more since his touring days, but they were all horrible. The interviewer insisted that that wasn't possible: surely the great Tom Lehrer could still write great songs. So Lehrer played one, and the interviewer conceded: it was awful. Lehrer retired before he made a fool of himself, and went back to teaching, and has had a great life. More power to him, and Watterson.

The famous Lehrer quote that he retired from song writing because "Kissenger made satire obsolete" is probably apocyphal.

redsock said...

Watterson has also turned down almost every merchandising possibility. He talks a lot about it here -- search for "rejected licensing" and try to ignore the weird symbol that is in the place of apostrophes.

"Instead of asking what's wrong with rampant commercialism, we ought to be asking, 'What justifies it?'"

L-girl said...

Love the Sheldon cartoon, thanks.

I'm not taking exception with Salinger's decision to retreat from fame and celebrity and no longer give his writing to the public. I find the extreme fetishing of solitude somewhat ridiculous. There is a lot of room between living on the dog-and-pony show tour of writing celebrity and what he did.

Again, he had to live his life as he saw fit, that's all any of us can and should do. I understand that fully. But I'm not sure the Lehrer or Watterson comparison holds up. After all, we're looking at what they told media.

"Instead of asking what's wrong with rampant commercialism, we ought to be asking, 'What justifies it?'"

Beautiful.

L-girl said...

Remember, this post was about my feelings about these two men, why I admire one and not the other.

James said...

Remember, this post was about my feelings about these two men, why I admire one and not the other.

Sure, point taken. I just found the comment about Salinger's self-imposed solitude interesting because of Watterson's similar self-exile. You're correct that Tom Lehrer isn't very analogous, but I think Bill Watterson is. He's gone to great lengths to avoid any contact with the press since his retirement -- he may not take it quite as far as Salinger did, but he's managed to isolate himself pretty well.

Given the extreme fetishization of fame in modern society -- both by the famous and the fans -- I find it refreshing to run into people who are willing to pass on the glitz and let their work stand on its own.

L-girl said...

Given the extreme fetishization of fame in modern society -- both by the famous and the fans -- I find it refreshing to run into people who are willing to pass on the glitz and let their work stand on its own.

Yes, that's a very good point, and I agree with you. I also admire artists who focus on the work and not the fame.

In Salinger's case, after a taste of fame, he withdrew not only himself, but his work, too. He stopped contributing to society altogether (if we take his work as a contribution to society).

When I think of how long he lived in NH, how long it was since his work was published, I imagine that his celebrated publishing days must have felt like another lifetime.

James said...

I go an post all that, and what does Bill Watterson do? He gives his first interview in 15 years! :)

L-girl said...

Ha! What timing!