To read something about J.D. Salinger that spends maybe half the time (or less) on the only reason he was famous in the first place — his writing — is just weird, as if they’re talking around, but not quite about, their subject. But the majority of J.D. Salinger’s obituaries are, in fact, more about the man than the writer.
Take the retrospective in The New York Times, which careens between the Scylla of pop psychoanalysis and the Charybdis of scandalmongering. It compares Salinger not only to his own characters — he was “never much of a student,” according to the story; just like Holden Caulfield, the reader is supposed to infer — but to legendary eccentrics like Howard Hughes and Thomas Pynchon. Then, it dwells at length on Salinger’s reclusiveness, dietary habits, and sex life. In between such episodes, it mentions his writing, which, it implies, drew heavily on his psychological highs and lows. No surprises there: this is obviously a pre-written post-mortem, with everything already in place except the cause of death. But the piece also tries to draw Salinger into the age of Tiger Woods, Anna Nicole Smith, and John Edwards, when our celebrities need to be flawed enough to milk for a full “news cycle,” but not so off-putting that we want to change the channel. The “Salinger legend” intrigues people precisely because he was a kind of latter-day monk — part ascetic, part hermit, all oddball. His writing never clued us in to his seduction-by-mail of Joyce Maynard, or the fact that his daughter Margaret found him cold and alienating, but when each of them wrote books about it, boy, did we care all of a sudden.
Clearly, literary canonicity does not mean personal saintliness, and it’s no longer up to literary iconoclasts and professional reviewers to try to bring Salinger down: now everyone is free to admit that Salinger’s characters can be whiny, spoiled, or worst of all, sanctimonious. And at least one twenty-first century high school English class has failed to project their own teenage angst onto Holden Caulfield, which is what we were supposed to have been doing all along. Although I’d venture to say that their collective reaction to Holden — “Shut up and take your Prozac” — probably tells us as much about their parents’ generation as their own (or, I should say, my own). But Holden Caulfield taught us all of that in the first place — the cynicism, the ironic distance from the world, the complete inability to articulate emotion except for a deep-seated restlessness. The warts-and-all portrait of Salinger is just the consequence of fifty-some years of reading, and understanding, Catcher — cultural payback, if you will, and maybe even a tribute to its lasting impact.
Personally, I find the fascination with Salinger’s personal business a little perplexing. Not that I’m trying to be prudish here, or to suggest that he somehow “deserved” his privacy just because he wrote some popular stories. Rather, my question is simply this: how do the details of his personal life somehow enrich our experience of his writing? I get that relatives, not newspapers and magazines, are supposed to be the ones writing treacly eulogies, and maybe it’s true that Salinger put a lot of himself into his characters, and a lot of Joyce Maynard into Franny Glass. But Salinger was always detached from his works, and we only ever “knew” him as he was mediated through his characters, whether Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, the anonymous narrators of “The Laughing Man” and “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” or Buddy Glass (who indirectly claims authorship for Nine Stories anyway). The only thing that Salinger ever intentionally wrote as himself, I think, is the dedication to Franny and Zooey, which is not all that exciting — beyond the fact that even Salinger felt compelled to half-sincere modesty once in a while.
So if psychologizing Salinger is best left to fools and biographers, where does that leave the rest of us? In danger of believing in a particular brand of solipsism, I think, since the literary press wants us to project our teenage selves onto Holden, and do whatever interpreting we want (because nobody really gets them) with the Glasses.
I’ll concede the point that we get into Salinger what we read into his work. But the conventional wisdom is a cop-out; Holden, remember (and most people don’t), ends up in a psych ward, which—to say nothing of affectations of world-weariness—is probably not anything we want to encourage teenagers to aspire to. And surely the Glasses are there to do more than just confirm what Catcher already told us: instead of “phonies,” we get “section men” and TV producers.
So let me offer a modest alternative reading. To me, Salinger’s corpus is not a celebration of cynicism, but a cautionary tale about its dangers. Between Holden and the Glasses, we have characters who are so jaded or traumatized by the adult world, or else so absorbed in it — and in themselves — that they’ve submerged their emotions in favor of complete, self-righteous detachment. As they are a bit superhuman themselves, their reactions tend toward the extreme — and provide most of the sheer pleasure of reading Salinger’s work. But underneath all the verbal fencing and the libidinous misadventures, Salinger warns us that the worst thing you can do in this world is to is forget how to connect with other people (doubly so if you can’t even talk to children!). No wonder Salinger ends every single one of his stories with a short meditation about the consequences of love (and, always, either Platonic or familial love, never erotic love): either his characters revel in its simple joys (“Down at the Dinghy,” Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor”) or suffer because of its absence (“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Uncle Wiggilly in Connecticut,” “The Laughing Man,” “Pretty My Mouth and Green My Eyes”). As Buddy Glass gradually realizes in Seymour, An Introduction, or Holden in Catcher, or Franny in Franny and Zooey, only through the love of others can we attain true goodness, and wisdom, and beauty.
Maybe you don’t agree, and maybe I’ve got Salinger pegged wrong altogether — it’s quite possible, since I’m only an admirer and frequent reader, and nothing approaching a bona fide literary critic. But that, you have to understand, is why I find the emphasis on Salinger’s personal life and the rote repetition of Cliff’s Notes themes to be so superficial, and so unsatisfying. Tragicomic, even.
But the only way to properly remember Salinger, I think, is to go and read him. That’s what I’ll be doing, anyway.