As the podcast’s lone Americanist, I suppose it falls to me to say something about J.D. Salinger, who died today at 91.
Salinger is best known, of course, for The Catcher in the Rye, the 1951 novel that launched a million enfants terribles. Nearly everyone reads Catcher in high school, and nearly everyone sees a good bit of Holden Caulfield in himself. One sympathizes with Salinger’s protagonist–and if one is like me, one goes around talking like him for several years.
But something funny happens when you reach adulthood. If you reread The Catcher in the Rye, it makes you a little queasy–you begin to see Caulfield with new eyes, much less sympathetically, and you’re ready for them to throw the hypersensitive little puke into the nuthouse well before the end. Salinger apologists say that this feeling is what the author intended, that the Holden-as-hero reading is fundamentally a misreading. I am not so sure.
I do know, however, that Franny and Zooey, published a decade later, is a much better book and that if there’s any justice in the world Salinger will be remembered for the complex spirituality in its second section rather than for the whiny ur-teenager banned from high schools all over the country. If you haven’t read Franny, use Salinger’s death as your excuse. (I should use it as an excuse to read Nine Stories and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, neither one of which I’ve read since the first few months of my undergraduate years.)
Salinger famously became a recluse after the publication of Roofbeams in 1963, and hasn’t published anything at all since a very long (and apparently very bad) story in a 1965 issue of the New Yorker. Rumors have persisted for years that Salinger has been bunkered up in New Hampshire these last 45 years writing work that will put his earlier fiction to shame. Some people think he’s got it all in a Prince-style vault, just waiting to be published. Some people think he’s burned it all. I suppose we’ll find out before too long.
In the meantime, so long to one of the twentieth century’s most overrated but effective writers. Here’s hoping his personal life doesn’t overshadow the best of his fiction.