Blog,  Love Letters,  Reflections

"I was trying to feel some kind of a good-by."

J. D. Salinger, author of “Catcher in the Rye” died yesterday (Jan. 27th) of natural causes, at the ripe ol’ age of 91. {read the article}
The funny thing is that I thought he died long ago. That’s how reclusive he’s been.

His only published novel is “Catcher in the Rye,” and a few short stories, including “Franny and Zooey.”

I first read “Catcher in the Rye” in high school, with our grade divided into different period English classes, and in my small group I was surprisingly one of the few who expressed enjoyment reading it. I never fancied myself having teenage angst at the time, though looking back, I think all teenagers do to some degree, in different-sized doses. But I do remember how the character Holden Caulfield would say a line now and then, and I would just be gob-smacked at how much I could relate to it. I remember wanting to be a “catcher in the rye” myself, protecting younger kids from the cruel, dark world of adulthood.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve seen movies like “Rebel Without a Cause,” which has really made me think about, of all things, the evolution of teenage angst, which seemed to start in the post-WWII era. It sounds rather juvenile, but when I think of the late 1940s/1950s, I think about poodle skirts and the Andy Griffith Show and I Love Lucy, where the married couples sleep in different beds and the kids all make good decisions and say things like “Gee whizz, dad! This is swell!” “Rebel Without a Cause” really took a look at the rebellious crowd, the greaser crowd, which was was one of the first non-conformist groups (irony?) that took form in western culture. (Of course you have the beatniks too, but the greasers are a more common stereotype.) It is out of this general era that Holden is born; wandering in that strange underbelly of culture that the media often glossed over at the time. In our post-modern era, sarcastic, disenchanted youth is the topic of more movies and books than you can count, but back then, in the era of color-coordinated kitchen appliances and over-sugary movies, it was like the white elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about. Yet somehow, “Catcher” revolutionized young adult literature as it stands.

I always loved the gritty subtlety in Salinger’s writing. One reason I find Holden interesting is that he’s sort of in between the polar extremes: he is not a hard, angry teen, nor is he a mama’s boy. He’s got a rough, jaded exterior, but inside, he’s just learning about the world himself. He thinks he knows everything, and then the next minute he tells you he doesn’t. As a character study, I find it endearing and fascinating.

I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park…I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away. ~ The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 1

The actual lagoon with the ducks. Found photo here.

Whether it’s too much of a caricature, or a fad, it doesn’t matter to me. I was intrigued by “Catcher” when I read it in high school, and I still have a special shelf in my heart for it.

As for Salinger himself, I am rather amazed by his very visible shun of the public AND the publishing industry, as I don’t remember hearing much about it (which, likely go hand in hand). As I’m hoping to publish a book myself, I can only hope that it’s his personality that drove him into a protective hole. It’s interesting thinking that a man who gave so much to the world through one book would literally hide himself away from prying eyes and not want to be bothered.

Wikipedia had an interesting blurb that sparked my attention:

While he was living with [his lover Joyce] Maynard, Salinger continued to write in a disciplined fashion, a few hours every morning. According to Maynard, by 1972 he had completed two new novels. In a rare 1974 interview with The New York Times, he explained: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing … I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” According to Maynard, he saw publication as “a damned interruption”. In her memoir, Margaret Salinger describes the detailed filing system her father had for his unpublished manuscripts: “A red mark meant, if I die before I finish my work, publish this ‘as is,’ blue meant publish but edit first, and so on.”

Whether we will ever get to read those “publish as is” books, who knows for sure?

I’ve always admired hermits and the almost cloistered writer or artist lifestyle, but people like Henry Darger and J. D. Salinger give me something to think about.

Goodnight to you, Mr. Salinger. Thanks for putting yourself out there.

“Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up…People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.” ~ The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 20


  • "Rodimus" Ben Lundy

    I like your observations about Salinger. I had no idea he only had one published book.

    About the teenaged angst– DEFINITELY something every teen goes through, they just express it in different ways. Most rebel against their parents by adopting the habits of their peers. I rebelled against my peers by adopting the habits of my parents. And I think you pinpointed it right; teen angst probably entered the collective consciousness of America post WWII– because spoiled kids with no great war to scar them had the luxury of being angsty.

    Today the reason so much angsty teen stuff is out there is because media makers have realized that's where the money is. Teens throw their parents' money around in our spoiled society, which is why stuff like Twilight and Transformers 2 make hundreds of MILLIONS of dollars.

    Sorry to sound negative. I take comfort in the fact that 90% of us outgrow our teen years.

    BTW I'd be surprised if his unpublished works become public before too long. I wonder how much it will change our perspective on him since it's pretty much entirely based on Catcher now.

  • Christina A. Nelson

    ^_^ Yes, indeed, most of us do! And yes, I'm interested in seeing more of his stuff in print as well. I wonder when that will materialize.