February 2, 2010

I wonder if I should affect to be more bummed than I am about J.D. Salinger’s death. I mean, I’m certainly sorry the guy died, but I liked The Catcher in the Rye just OK, lacking that assassinate-a-public-figure fervor the book seems to have inspired in recent decades. The book had such an aura surrounding it that I expected to be gobsmacked and of course was not; I’d probably absorbed so many books penned under its direct influence that I could not appreciate what must have been so startling, so groundbreaking about it at the time of its publication. It’s kind of like being slightly underwhelmed by the The French Connection after you’ve grown up watching car chase films, which I was because I had. 

Holden Caulfield purportedly doesn’t resonate as strongly with today’s teenagers as he did with past generations. Whether that’s because they are too cyber-connected to relate to someone who is so alienated or because Catcher’s ubiquity on required reading lists has drained him of his underdog cachet I don’t know. And maybe it’s just not so; I’m woefully out of touch with teenagers these days save the two who have kindly friended me on Facebook. (I wonder did Salinger ever Google himself and if that in any way diminishes him. His having Internet access at all likely destroys the myth entirely. And yet the most effective way to toil in complete obscurity may well be to write a blog.)

Salinger received much lambasting over the years for insisting he wanted privacy but not avoiding the limelight well enough. No walled fortress, no bodyguards, a taste for lawsuits, and a penchant for actresses and young girls such as the writer Joyce Maynard, who broke her silence about their relationship in At Home in the World. Sure, it was pretty skeevy for a 53-year-old man to woo an 18-year-old girl, not the most flattering glimpse of the recluse. But why was he supposed to have better managed his renunciated public image?

I’m curious to know whether Salinger truly kept writing, and if so, what forms it took and whether it will see the light of day. Many people write and don’t publish, but without readers, or at least imagined someday readers, something’s bound to be missing. If you write only for yourself (as he is said to have claimed), does it need to have form and shapeliness–does it even need to make sense? After all, you know what you meant; no need to put on airs or explicate. So I fear a sloppy, curmudgeonly journal in the tens of thousands of pages will be released in several volumes over the next few years if his heirs have bills and J.D. didn’t feed it to the fire before his heart gave out.


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