Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)
Passings: J. D. Salinger
Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Canada)
How well do I know the reader? How much can I tell him without unnecessarily embarrassing either of us? A place has been prepared for each of us in his own mind (Salinger, 1959:112).
Writing can be silenced by the words of others. J. D. Salinger stopped publishing in 1965 because of criticism from writers and critics he admired such as Frank Kermode, Mary McCarthy, and John Updike. Updike, a successful author but hardly a great artist, wrote that Salinger’s work on the Glass family lacked “artistic moderation” (McGrath, 2010). Perhaps it is his own highly attenuated sense of such moderation that bores me so whenever I try to read Updike.
A man who’s nerves were frayed from combat in Europe during World War Two Salinger was unable to thrive on criticism the way a writer like Baudrillard could. Since his death it has been widely reported that he was part of the D-Day landing (Utah Beach), later fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was among the first American soldiers to participate in the liberation of a concentration camp. He once told his daughter Margaret that “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live” (Lea, 2010). Following the war he was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown. For Baudrillard writing was a vehicle which could be fueled by criticism and distain. Salinger took a very different, but no less successful, route. Both men did what they most enjoyed until the end on their own terms. As much as Baudrillard was inspired by scorn Salinger preferred the refuge of silence. It was the main work of art he would share with the world for most of the second half of his life. His accounts were continually sustained by the continued success of The Catcher in the Rye. Catcher has sold over 65 million copies worldwide and continues to sell 200,000 copies each year in the U.S. It records a successful exploration of one late modernity’s more significant innovations – the teenager. A good part of the reason why so many of us liked the book as adolescents is that it is genuinely funny in its assault on the “phoniness” of contemporary society. Holden Caulfield was also a character presented to us with great understanding.
Many were surprised by the announcement of his death last year because they believed Salinger had died several years ago. He had merely receded from the commercial world of publishing. Among the more interesting literary events of the next decade may well be the publication Salinger’s writings of the past 45 years. According to his children there are at least two novels and several shorter manuscripts locked in a safe. In his final interview (The New York Times, 1974) he said that he loved to write and planned to continue doing so for his own pleasure.
While Holden Caulfield and fighting in Europe occupied much of his attention from 1941-1951 Salinger published several short stories. A collection, 9 Stories followed Catcher by four years in 1955. After publishing several short stories in various magazines, The New Yorker – the publication he most sought out – became his literary home. In 1946 the world first met Holden Morrisey Caulfield on its pages in “Slight Rebellion off Madison” (December 21:82 ff.), five years before Catcher was published. In January 1948 we meet the Glass Family for the first time on The New Yorker’s pages in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (January 31:21 ff.). “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” appeared two months later” (March 20: 30 ff.), and established him as a “regular” on the pages of The New Yorker. These were followed by “Just Before the War With the Eskimos” (June 5, 1948:37 ff.); “The Laughing Man” (March 19, 1949:27 ff.); “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor” (April 8, 1950:28 ff.); “Pretty Mouth and My Green Eyes” (July 14, 1951:20); “Teddy” (January 31, 1953: 26 ff.); Franny (January 29, 1955:24 ff.); Raise High the Roof beam, Carpenters (November 19, 1955: 51 ff.); Zooey (May 4, 1957: 32 ff.); Seymour: An Introduction (June 6, 1959:42 ff.); and Hapworth 16, 1924 (June 19, 1965 32 ff.). Aside from The New York Times interview nine years later, and the occasional statement from his agent and lawyer protecting his copyright, Hapworth is the last writing he shared with the public during his lifetime.
In death, as in 1951 when he spent the summer in England after Catcher was published in America, he will avoid the critical reception of his last works. It is a strategy I can only admire. As Baudrillard noted on several occasions, ours is a culture of performance where everything is made to speak ( 1990:20). “Communication” he wrote “is no longer a matter of speaking, but of making people speak” ( 1993:46); and “with so much communication, it isn’t even clear that you can want to speak or write” ( 1997:35). Against those who would make him speak Salinger deployed a strategy of silence. This silence troubled many and was a source of puzzlement in several of his mainstream media obituaries. The tone of most of these is respectful yet chagrined by Salinger’s refusal to publish in later years. Rather than become an image for publishers he chose to go on being himself for himself. Perhaps, given his mental outlook, it was not even a choice. Whatever the case it makes him unique among 20th century writers of enormous talent.
He was a magnificent wordsmith:
The facts at hand presumably speak for themselves, but a trifle more vulgarly, I suspect, than facts even usually do. As a counterbalance, then, we begin with that ever fresh and exiting odium: the author’s formal introduction. The one I have in mind not only is wordy and earnest beyond my wildest dreams but is, to boot, rather excruciatingly personal. If, with the right kind of luck, it comes off, it should be comparable in effect to a compulsory guided tour, through the engine room, with myself, as guide, leading the way in an old one-piece Jansen bathing suit. To get straight to the worst, what I’m really about to offer isn’t really a short story at all but sort of a prose home movie, and those who have seen the footage have strongly advised me against nurturing any elaborate distribution plans for it” (Zooey, The New Yorker, May 4, 1957:32).
His characters developed rapidly over a few pages and were usually treated with great respect and empathy. This is one of the secrets to Catcher’s ongoing success. An example is Holden telling us about his experiences in his New York hotel:
The elevator guy asked me if I wanted a prostitute an’ I thought I ain’t bovvered either way but I might as well as I was a bit lonesome, so I said yes an’ then she came along an’ she was cute an’ all but I couldn’t, y’know, do it because it didn’t feel right. Truth is, I’m a virgin no kidding, an’ I don’t really get the sex thing, so I gave her $5 an’ then she came back with the elevator guy an’ demanded another $5 an’ I said no way so he beat me up.
While Catcher may still appeal to disaffected and ambivalent youth it is also a wonderful snapshot of disaffection in a particular time. His many tales of the Glass family are worthy of our precious reading time today as they are marvelous writing. Salinger was a modern artist who’s concern was the individual in the artificiality of modern culture. His work stands today as a reminder of how we occupy a different time now but from which we can admire his writing and what it says about the art and culture of American high modernity as much as does that of Jackson Pollock from a time which now seems so far away. Holden Caulfield’s enduring fame rests on how well he gave voice to the suspicion, widely held, that the entire project of modernity was, a kind of catastrophe in slow motion in which we are trapped.
If the work from the second half of his life is as prodigious as some close to Salinger have speculated, and if we ever see it, it will be interesting to learn what he thought of contemporary times. Perhaps he will add fresh insights into the transition from Modernity to what has come after it. What, I wonder, might a poststructuralist Salinger story look like? Silence is, as Salinger well knew, a very powerful form of communication. Maybe Hapworth will remain the last of his writing we are privileged to read. After all, why avail oneself of meaning when silence is bound to win out in the end? (Baudrillard,  1990:124)
Jerome David Salinger
January 1, 1919 – January 28, 2010
Jean Baudrillard ( 1990). Seduction. Montreal: New World Perspectives.
Jean Baudrillard (1983] 1990). Fatal Strategies: Revenge of the Crystal (1983). New York: Semiotext(e)/ Pluto Press.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1993). The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1997). Fragments: Cool Memories III, 1990-1995, New York: Verso.
Charles McGrath (2010). “J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, dies at 9”, The New York Times (January 29): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/books/29salinger.html
J. D. Salinger (1951). The Catcher In The Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Richard Lea (2010). “Catcher in the Rye Author Would Not Be caught in the Public Eye”. The Guardian (January 28).