J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010

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01/28/2010 4:04 PM |


Jerome David Salinger, whose death yesterday has just been announced, was born in Manhattan on New Year’s Day. Before and after fighting in the Second World War (he was drafted), he sent stories to the New Yorker with one story—an early appearance from Holden Caulfield— accepted for publication in 1942, but held until 1946. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” was published in 1948, leading to a close and mutually beneficial relationship with the magazine, which made an ideal home for his exquisitely clear, ironical narrative voice, eye for socially significant detail and ear for smart-mouthed dialogue, and his lovingly detailed depictions of precocious minds and a rarified New York City. Looking back at those stories in the New Yorker‘s digital archive (all are currently available for your perusal) is like looking into a snowglobe. (It’s from that snowglobe where filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman got many of their ideas about New York City. Salinger’s influence has perhaps been greater outside of the literary world than within it: the vast majority of his fans were—and, obviously, continue to be—younger than him, and grew up around newer media.)

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” pages 21-25 of the January 31, 1948 issue of the New Yorker, is the story of Seymour Glass, a veteran of the Second World War, on vacation in Florida following hospitalization for psychiatric reasons, and some rather inappropriate behavior in New York.

In the first movement of the story, his wife discusses his breakdown with her mother over the phone, along with minor social matters, while also lamenting the decline of the hotel’s standard of clientele since her last trip their with Seymour, before the war. Skittish Seymour himself is also mourning some idealized prewar state: in the second movement of the story, he chatters cutely with a four- or five-year-old girl on the beach, sneaking some gentle moral instruction into his banter. In the third and final section, he sits down next to his sleeping wife and shoots himself.

The spiritual struggles of Seymour and his six younger siblings, Upper East Side quiz show prodigies all, are the central subject of Salinger’s published fiction; in creating a timeline, and ascribing authorship of several of the Glass stories to the second-oldest sibling, Salinger created something like a fully functional hermetic universe. (One story is described as a “prose home movie.”)

“Franny” is the story of the youngest Glass sister’s nervous collapse on the eve of the Yale game, in the face of a world that seems to be actively denying its own potential for grace. Its much longer companion piece, “Zooey,” was published two years later in 1957, taking up nearly the entirety of the May 4 issue of the New Yorker (look for the full-page Western Union ad on page 43, starring the happily married Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a detail as perfect as the hilarious, eventually poignant inventory of the family’s overflowing medicine cabinet). In it, Zooey draws the broken-down Franny back out into the world with the great “Shine your shoes for the Fat Lady” monologue—an affirmation of the transcendental power of the pure gesture, and a way forward for someone who’s lost faith in the world at large.

By this time, Salinger was pretty heavily into Zen Buddhism.

The other great oversensitive young soul in the Salinger canon is, of course, Holden Caulfield. Like very many young Americans, I read Catcher in the Rye when it was assigned to me early in high school; this is as it should be. Even the book’s frequent misinterpretation (despite the injunctions of more equanimous characters, who speak not just to Holden but outward to the reader) speak to its relatability: the way Holden smarts from wounds inflicted on himself, on others, and on simple good taste is self-righteous in a way that’s easy for a teenager to miss, because when you read the book (for the first time) it’s never occurred to you that anyone else might feel this way too, let alone have written it down in a plainspoken, slangy voice that nevertheless sounds as secretly smart as you feel, and which not incidentally nails adolescent anxieties ranging from skin care to the quaking terror that the girl you like is going to let some other guy treat her much worse than you ever would.

Schoolboy Holden, like college girl Franny and unlike war veteran Seymour, recovers from his crack-up after learning (with the help of a sibling) how to live in a world that’s bound to disappoint. Salinger himself ultimately decided not to.

Early in the 1950s, Salinger moved to a house in the New Hampshire woods behind a six-and-a-half-foot fence; he published his last story in 1965. He experimented with various fringe spiritual practices, began and ended complicated romantic entanglements, and retained a position of prominence in American culture, on account of his rather ostentatious withdrawal from it as much as for the enduring popularity of his work. At the turn of the century, lover and his daughter wrote memoirs noted for their almost gothic revelations about the author’s monastic lifestyle and controlling demeanor.

Even after he gave up publishing, Salinger kept a tight rein over the public life of his work. He sued the author of an unauthorized biography, to keep his letters out of the book. He kept an Iranian film based on Franny and Zooey from screening stateside. Last year, he sued (so far successfully) to block publication of a Catcher in the Rye sequel by an anonymous author. Many of his stories remain unpublished in book form; in 1974, in a rare interview with the Times, Salinger spoke out against the unauthorized publication of two volumes of his early stories:

Some stories, my property, have been stolen. Someone’s appropriated them. It’s an illicit act. It’s unfair. Suppose you had a coat you liked and somebody went into your closet and stole it… all I’m doing is trying to protect myself and my work.

The way “myself and my work” are caught up with each other is revealing.

In that interview, Salinger also said, “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” His former lover Joyce Maynard claimed that he wrote for hours every day, and that when they knew each other he had completed two novels, unread by all but himself. This was in the early 70s. His daughter Margaret claimed that Salinger designated some manuscripts for publication upon his death; nobody has yet suggested that Salinger destroyed the work he did in the second half of his life.

J.D. Salinger has finally released his grip on his life and work. The world, worthy or not, waits.