When I was twelve, I read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Being a crazy little bibliophile who was anxious to read all the American “classics” before high school, I got stuck on this one–I couldn’t put it down. Holden Caulfield (even writing his name feels like I’m writing my friend’s name down, not a famous literary nutcase) spoke to me in a way that no one else has ever done at any other moment in my life. He is the perfect cheerleader for the prepubescent, for that moment in time when the hypocrises of life seem to come to the fore and your growing brain (and heart) sees through the disruptive traditions of everyday American existence. His anxiety, his self-seriousness, his ability to say exactly what he was feeling . . . Holden was my hero. In subsequent readings, of couse, I realized that his rage and upended hostility was something only teens were prone to. And, according to the stories in DREAM CATCHER, the memoir written by his daughter, Margaret, Mr. Salinger himself never seemed to escape those adolescent trappings. His interest in Buddhism and bedding young girls seems to be very Holden-like (and a little bit like Zooey in FRANNY AND ZOOEY, my true fave of his novels and stories) and his inability to deal with the world-at-large seems to be a study in adolescent angst.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about his life was his complete and utter dismissal of the celebrity world. Where would other novelists, like Norman Mailer, John Irving, Anne Rice, Henry Miller, be without the public eye? Where else would they rail about their work, their eccentricities, their disgust with the cinematic interpretation of their work (while they cashed all those big Hollywood checks)? It is amazing to think of participating in the arts and NOT accepting an overwhelming love from the people who are touched by your work. But maybe Salinger knew something other people didn’t–staying out of the public eye kept him alive to 91–John Lennon didn’t get to pass 40. Salinger was a pure writer–he put the work out there and let it be. That inability to embrace and exploit public attention is something unthinkable in this day of the instant celebrity (Lauren Conrad, Salinger is a REAL writer, just in case you were wondering!)
The endless fights over his unpublished works, the occasional sightings of him in New Hampshire, Joyce Maynard’s affair with the author, the attempts to make movies out of his work . . . Salinger created a web of controversy around his daily life but that spotlight never kept his work out of the bestseller lists and literary canons at universities all around the world. His work is timeless–like the best of rock ‘n’ roll or the enduring visage of James Dean, Salinger captured something in his work that speaks to all people at one particularly difficult part of their lives–that poorly-lit tunnel between childhood and adulthood, where you start to form your own opinions and try to figure out where you stand in the world. Salinger stayed in that tunnel, reveled in it, used it to create literary creations that no one will ever forget. Who knows how happy he was? Certainly there will be many attempts at unraveling the man’s life but, more importantly, his eccentricities will pale in comparison to the importance of his literary persona–long live Holden!