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J.D. Salinger (1919 – 2010)

Friday, January 29, 2010

I’ve thought about this day off and on through the years (as have hundreds of thousands of others, I know), contemplated its inevitability, pondered its ramifications.  I wondered how I would feel, how the media would react, and what both his fans and detractors would start to say about his legacy.  And, though it sounds callous, I of course thought about the possibility of his vaults being opened up, all this writing that he had supposedly still been doing throughout the years finally coming to light, either as his final hurrah and beneficent gift to his long-suffering followers, or against his will, Kafka-esque.

Of course, it also wouldn’t be surprising if he burned it all years ago.

For such was the enigma that was Jerome David Salinger, a man who, in a way, become his own worst enemy — a famous man enveloping himself in reclusion in order to safeguard his privacy, but that very status of ‘famous recluse’ meaning there would always be someone looking to get inside and blow the doors open.  Despite this, he, or his legacy, at least, managed to survive mostly unscathed, but now, given that the cryptic story of his life is over and his mysterious presence, floating around sardonically in the background of the American literary imagination for decades, is gone, if we don’t get anything posthumous from his estate, it wouldn’t surprise me if that legacy very quickly planed out into an almost nothingness, dull embers, ageing Gen-Xers and the odd lit. student being the only ones to still give a damn, for really, is there any room in our hollow, transient, amnesic media-culture for Holden Caulfield and the Glass family?

Actually, funnily enough, you could make the argument both ways on that one.  You could say that what made Salinger’s protagonists truly innovative and fascinating in their time was their hyper-awareness of the absurdities, contradictions and hypocrisy around them, that the reason they had so much appeal to so many for so long was because they offered alternatives to the boring, stultifying, rigid edicts of middle-class society; in just the last fifteen years, however, the Internet has kind of made us all like that anyway.  That would make Salinger something like an older order of Titan giving way to the new Olympus.

Conversely, you could say that people who feel disenfranchised by the Internet-age and go off looking for something more meaningful might be able to find it in their own interpretations of Caulfield or Franny Glass.  Maybe stories that seem somewhat anachronistic to someone older will appear fresh and new to a younger person just discovering them now, and maybe that’s actually how it’s always worked with Salinger — the characters are so timeless that they can become anything for anyone in any time.  That would be truly remarkable.

I have to be careful here, though, because I admit it’s been quite a while since I’ve read any Salinger myself.  Catcher in the Rye was way back in high school, and the others in university, so I admit my remembrance of them is vague, more general feeling and atmosphere than detail.  My emotional attachment at the time was definitely strong, though I don’t think I related to his books in quite the same way as others; where a lot of people saw Caulfield as an anti-hero and a template on how to ferret out dishonesty and absurdity in others, I think I mostly just enjoyed his voice, since it was searching and honest, and I simply liked the idea of being able to wander around a new place (or even a familiar place) where experience could happen to you without you having to make much of an effort (i.e. New York).  As I got older and read Nine Stories and all the exploits of the Glass family, I like to think I developed a deeper appreciation for his technique: his very careful and deliberate planting of epiphanic details (Zooey), his often jarring contrast of gentle humour and horrible pain (A Perfect Day For Bananafish).  He was one of my icons, one of those who inspired me and whom I used to help point me in right directions.

One of those directions was, not surprisingly, toward a girl.  In my third-year writing class there were two girls whom I was crazy about, one exotic and one bemusing (in both the correct and incorrect meaning of that word).  One day the bemusing one (who was also obsessed with Salinger) and I discovered that there was an old magazine called Story that had published many of his short stories, all of which remained unanthologized.  Even though this magazine was older than our university, on a whim we decided to decamp to the library, check the archives, and see if they had it.  Amazingly, they did — various copies loosely held together in decaying binding, and after a couple of hours detective work we found as many of these pieces of hidden treasure as we could, photocopied them, and left feeling like we were the only ones possessed of this grand secret.

Then I blew it with the girl, everything took on negative connotations, I drifted away from Salinger and I haven’t really gone back since (it is The Laughing Man writ real), except to occasionally wonder about what might occur upon his death.

And so here we are.  It will be interesting to see what happens now; will he get the ‘Michael Jackson treatment’ from the media and literary community (it depresses me to use that as the analogy, but that’s the world we live in), or will he be simply another quickly-glanced-at headline on an RSS news-feed?  I think it will depend on how his estate handles his work.  If they re-issue, anthologize and even give us new stuff to discover, then I can see a whole new generation getting into him because his characters are rich enough to still be relevant today; if his final wish is that he remain in death what he was in life, then he will shortly grow dim and fade away, like oil-lamps in the window of a country house, turned low for the night, barely glimpsed through roadside trees from a passing car, snuffing themselves out during a dark phase of the moon and disappearing forever into the unsympathetic, weltering recesses of memory.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, February 1, 2010 1:50 pm

    In memory of J. D., I offer a gift given by Buddy Glass so many years ago — an “unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((()))).”

  2. Tuesday, February 2, 2010 12:54 pm


  3. tgjkennedy permalink
    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 2:33 pm

    Nice to see you here Christopher, I second that cheers.

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