'Salinger the writer died in 1965'
JD Salinger died yesterday, but his celebrated book ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is an overrated work that took over the author’s life and sent him into seclusion, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY, Literary Correspondent
HE BECAME famous on the publication of one iconic book, The Catcher in the Rye, he has remained famous ever since, largely through his efforts to ward off the outside world. JD Salinger the man died yesterday at the age of 91, but the writer “died” a long time ago, in 1965, when his last published story, Hapworth 16, 1924, featured in the New Yorker.
The Catcher in the Ryeappeared in novel form in 1951, having been serialised between 1945 and 1946. It struck a tone and caught the defiance of its time. More than that, it articulated all the frustrations of the American post-war, middle-class adolescent poised for a rebellion of sorts.
It wasn’t the first time the vernacular had been used, Ring Lardner had already been there. And before him had been Mark Twain. For every reader who claims The Catcher in the Ryeas his or her personal bible, there are many, many more, myself included, who would point to Huckleberry Finnas the superior creation. But Salinger voiced the edginess. Huck is great company; Holden Caulfield is a challenge to himself and to everyone else. He doesn’t do much, and boy, does he talk. The narrative amounts to a monologue. Holden has problems. He has flunked out of school and now must face his parents.
He decides that everyone, excepting two nuns he meets at breakfast, are phonies. “Phoney” is a key word for Holden and for the book. Its message is that grown-ups are useless. The book is an odyssey. Holden spends a weekend in New York trying to make sense of life. Once he gets home he is psychoanalysed, yet another indictment of phoney grown ups.
The Catcher in the Ryecould be seen as a defining gesture of rebellion. Perhaps it is. But if it is a book of its time, and it certainly is that, it is very much of thattime, and reading it now is to be struck by its archness and also that fact that Holden is an irritating character whose self-absorption only relaxes in the company of his little sister. It all sound too pat, a bit corny. Huck Finnwins out every time, as does another great novel, To Kill a Mockingbird(1960). Written by Harper Lee, it was her only book and yet it has stood the test of time rather better than The Catcher in the Rye.
Salinger spent the rest of his brief writing career, and his long life, on the run from that first novel. Although Nine Stories(1953), Franny and Zooey(1961) Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter,and Seymour: An Introduction(1963) followed, Salinger, despite his efforts to write about the Glass family, including Buddy, his alter ego, could never shake off the voice of Holden.
Salinger continued writing, just not publishing. He retreated into reclusive privacy, leaving that one book as his testament. People had some idea of what Salinger looked like, but he became a mystery. Much the same could be said of Thomas Pynchon, but behind Pynchon’s reclusiveness is a hint of playfulness, and he has continued publishing. Salinger’s privacy conveyed real desperation, a torment that went beyond keeping humanity at arm’s length.
In 1988 British poet and critic Ian Hamilton, who had written a major biography of Robert Lowell, spoke about the horrors of attempting a biography of Salinger. For Hamilton, The Catcher in the Ryehad been a bible. In 1985 Hamilton had delivered a manuscript based on extensive research and more than 100 unpublished letters stored in the respective libraries of Princeton and the University of Texas. The correspondence spanned Salinger’s life from 1939 when he was 20 until 1961, 10 years after the publication of the book that made him – and some might suggest, destroyed him.
Salinger, who had expressed no interest in the biography, suddenly erupted. An injunction was sought and granted. Hamilton’s study was gutted. He wrote a second version; it too was vetoed, as was a third. Finally he wrote a very different book, an account of his experience. It was titled The Search for JD Salinger, published in 1988 and didn’t much please anyone, least of all the disgruntled Hamilton.
So JD Salinger had his moment of fame. Franny and Zooeyinitially sold better than The Catcher in the Rye. Was Salinger a great writer? No. But he is an original. It’s difficult to deny, though, that the book took over his life, sending him into seclusion on a 900-acre farm in New Hampshire, where he tried to write but somehow couldn’t because Holden Caulfield had already said all that Salinger had to say.
Remembering an author who ‘set a fire alight that changed the world’
Colm Tóibín, novelist
I read The Catcher in the Ryewhen I was about 15 or 16 in a Penguin paperback and I never looked back. It captured the creepiness of adolescence, the mixture of certainty and insecurity, the way you, like Holden, were normal and other people were weird.
I loved some of Salinger’s other titles and pondered them deeply as though they contained a whole world, especially Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and For Esme, With Love and Squalor.
A few years ago I reread The Catcher in the Ryeand loved how it handled the quirkiness of voice and the darting movements of a fragile and brilliant consciousness.
Niall McMonagle, teacher
The thing I think of first when I think of JD Salinger is the wonderful salvo in the opening page, when Holden Caulfield rejects all the David Copperfield kind of crap. Caulfield’s is one of the most distinctive voices. Of course he is cynical and of course he is disaffected, but his love for Phoebe and his response to the two nuns in the scene in Grand Central are so redeeming in terms of his personality.
As for Salinger the person, maybe it’s better to take on board the advice, “never trust the teller trust the tale”. He did everything not to be invaded by the disease in our age: the invasive celebrity culture syndrome.
There are some books you can give to any teenager. The Catcher in The Ryeis one of them.
Joseph O’Connor, writer
I’ll never forget the shock and the joy of first reading The Catcher in the Ryewhen I was 17. You felt Holden was talking to you – perhaps to you alone – and that your responses to what he was telling you were somehow part of the novel. You even felt he was listening in whatever zone he inhabited. This was something totally new to me: fiction as friendship-assertion. It’s the book that made me want to be a writer myself.
Paul Murray, novelist
The Catcher in the Ryewas an enormously influential book for me. I think Salinger has fallen out of fashion in recent times, and people regard the book as a teenager book. It was a really beautiful book and I think any time I go back to him, I’m really struck by how it was trying to get to some kind of truth.
I understand why he would want to separate his life from the work he created. At the same time I think that his decision to withhold his work from readers is harder to understand. He is one of those cult writers, and he attracted young people who were looking to him for answers. I’d imagine that is frightening.
John Banville, novelist
He was a great stylist, and he was very important to us in the 1950s and 1960s, and then he went silent in that strange way that was shocking. Sometimes people just run out of steam. EM Forster gave up at a certain point. It happens. It was strange that Salinger became such a recluse; he would have been better off talking to younger writers and so on. But that’s what happens to older writers sometimes.
Hugo Hamilton, writer
I was given the book by my mother when I was 15. It was like letting a drug dealer into the house. It caused the revolution. It was a revolution that was coming anyway, but that book speeded it up. It was the first glimpse of a young person thinking for themselves with compete freedom. People like myself just copied that and were desperate to get out of the house and away from the authoritarian rule.
He is one of the people who contributed to a whole movement of 1968 that changed the world completely. He set a fire alight that changed the world.
Theo Dorgan, poet and author
It was an important book for people who grew up through the 1960s and 1970s. Salinger was one of those who realised that teenagers had minds of their own. It seems obvious to us that teenagers are aware of being in the world and think of themselves as people, but the convention before the late 1960s was not that. The shock value of Catcheris that here you had a teenager thinking very independently and making his own choices, however flawed they might be. The Catcher in the Ryegives a preview of the youth culture to come.