Saturday, January 30, 2010
Unless you've been living in an isolated cabin in New Hampshire, you'll have heard the news by now: J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, is no longer among the living. Like thousands of writers across several generations, I think of Salinger as one of my major influences, not so much for Catcher, but for his short stories and novellas dealing with the brilliant but troubled Glass family. (I used to read “Seymour, an Introduction” every year around Christmas as a cure for the wintertime blues.) In the four books he published in his lifetime (Catcher was his only novel) he demonstrated nearly perfect control of the English language; to borrow a phrase of his, his stories were “prose home movies,” precisely rendered portraits of movement and dialogue in which everything is in exactly the right place. “Omit needless words,” Bill Strunk advises us in Elements of Style, and Salinger shows us what that looks like.
But Salinger departs this world under rather odd conditions. He's not David Foster Wallace, dying at the peak of what should have been a long career, or Kurt Vonnegut, passing away after decades of critical and commercial success, or John Kennedy O'Toole, killing himself before his brilliance could be recognized. By all accounts, Salinger kept writing during his years of self-imposed isolation while at the same time refusing to let anyone publish or even see his manuscripts—now that he's dead, at least some of this work will see the light of day. Although a lot of his fans are in mourning right now, there's a lot of silver lining in this cloud: he lived to the extremely ripe age of 91, and now we'll finally get to see what he was working on this whole time.
It should be noted, too, that while the guy certainly had no obligation to publish books and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous publicity for the sake of a bunch of people he had never met, there was a nasty edge to his desire for “privacy.” Last year a Swedish author wrote a “sequel” to Catcher in the Rye that featured Holden Caufield and Salinger as characters; the book was banned in the US after Salinger cried copyright infringement. The book's publication wouldn't have affected Salinger's life in any way, yet he decided to fuck over a first-time novelist because apparently Salinger's characters and ideas are like precious jewels that he has to lock up in a cabinet and never let anyone touch. Years earlier a writer decided to write a sequel to George Orwell's Animal Farm, which was published as a “parody” over the objections of Orwell's estate, and guess what? It's a worthwhile novel that didn't diminish the value of the relevancy of the original in any way. (That might not be the case with the Catcher sequel, but still, it was awfully petty for Salinger to bring the suit.)
Then there's the case of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” the last of his stories to appear in published form. If you have a copy of the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker, you can read it, but thanks to Salinger's obstructionism, it never got anthologized or reprinted. It was nearly published by a small press until the Editor-in-Chief made the mistake of talking about it to a newspaper, which made Salinger very angry and he pulled out of a deal that could have helped a struggling press a great deal. There's the right to privacy, then there's screwing over people who just wanted to pay tribute to your work.
When I read Salinger, I don't give much thought to the man himself or his life, and that's probably the way he wanted it. He was a celebrity author who hated fame and never appeared to care about any of his fans, except the young women who he invited to live with him. I don't think I liked Salinger, the guy, at all. I just liked his sentences, and those, thankfully, aren't dying any time soon.