J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010

January 28, 2010 | 4 books mentioned 13 2 min read

One of the curses of fame in the age of mechanical reproduction is the way it renders the strange ubiquitous, the sublime habitual. There is the first time you hear “Born to Run,” and there is the umpteenth, and by the time you get to the guy drunkenly karaokeing it at 2 a.m. in Koreatown (rock on, Dave!) it’s kind of hard to remember the first time, when it still felt holy. I guess that’s called growing up, but still…

coverNotwithstanding his philosophical apprehensions about fame and adulthood, American style, J.D. Salinger could not quite escape this fate. It is difficult to remember, given his prominence on high school syllabi, that he was once ardently debated by college professors. It is hard to appreciate fully, now that Catcher in the Rye is a line in “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the recklessness of Holden Caulfield’s address to the reader. After Life of Pi and The Mezzanine and Oblivion, the profound strangeness of Franny Glass’ religious epiphany and of Zooey’s endless bath and of Buddy’s recursive later mode start to seem ordinary. And it is hard to disentangle the heart-stopping endings of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” or “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor” from the clichés they would become. Esmé, recall, used to be an unusual name. So, come to think of it, did Zooey.

It is likely that Salinger, who like some keen but troubled falcon increasingly homed in on quarries too large for language – holiness, perfect truth – would have seen the domestication of his fiction as a defeat. I’d like to propose, however, on the occasion of his death at age 91, that it was a victory. It afforded him the leverage to shift, as few others have, the center of American literature. His candid introspection would liberate subsequent generations of storytellers (for better and sometimes for worse) to tackle without fear the personal, the intimate, and even the juvenile. Goodybe to the manly r-r-reticence of Hemingway. So long, even, to the social.

That, in a reduced form, is the what of Salinger’s career. Harder to talk about is the how. With each book, he drew closer to the vanishing point where candor and artifice, earnestness and irony, “literally” and literally, become indistinguishable from each other. After his last published stories, “Seymour: An Introduction” and “Hapworth 16, 1924,” (made available to subscribers in the New Yorker archive) he vanished beyond it. No one seemed able to agree on what to make of them, or of the silence that followed. Was he serious?

It is possible that further work will be unearthed posthumously. And I suppose, if we’re going to get to see The Pale King and Three Days Before the Shooting, we might as well see what Salinger left behind, in some similarly respectful edition. But the best place to start revisiting the Salinger canon – a body of work as perfect as any American has produced – may be those two final stories, those five a.m., all-stars-out productions. Their strangeness reminds us of just what distances this writer was willing to travel in pursuit of his truths.

It may also remind us afresh of how far, in the earlier works, he got. Though it has been talked about as the greatest vanishing act in the history of American letters, Jerome David Salinger’s career also turns out to be one of the major triumphs. He had something to say, he said it – beautifully – and when he couldn’t say it anymore, he stopped. Charming? Yes. Adolescent? Sometimes. But boy, reader, was he serious.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. Fantastic post, Garth. As a middle-aged writer, I often think of the perils of just continuing on no matter what (see: recent Philip Roth or Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Nocturnes” which I recently read and was greatly disappointed by) as opposed to doing what you do best (brilliantly, in Salinger’s case) and stopping when you’re done. One can’t tell a writer what to do–and I don’t want to privilege one choice over the other–but I think the choice of stopping deserves more respect than it gets.

    Re:”Born to Run” :Sit down, in a quiet half-hour or so, and listen to the whole album straight through. It’s still a religious experience. (I did this recently and I really could NOT believe it. What an album!)

  2. Confusing Salinger’s legendary “craft” with the obscenely imperfect substance of his fiction seems to be a popular pastime for armchair eulogizers of late. Wes Anderson, it seems to me, knows better how to employ Salinger’s themes and accoutrements than did Salinger himself. Anderson’s payoff shots – his camera’s play with nostalgic text and adolescent pattern, think of Margot Tenenbaum’s bedroom – achieve essentially the same species of pathos as any Glass family portrait. Yet the most common critique of Wes Anderson – that his pictures are quirky algorithms of an alienated ruling class, not much more – is just as valid, more so, when levied against Salinger. To call his body of work “perfect” is more than a misreading or a matter of taste – it’s just untrue. Has anyone read ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ with an eye to form? The novel is a disaster. And ‘Bananafish?’ Has any short story ever received more acclaim for doing so little? Read more Alice Munro or Barry Hannah if it’s substance and style you seek in unison. Even defining perfection as loosely as ‘consistency of significance,’ Salinger falls short. Don DeLillo is somewhat hermetic, too, yet his work already far surpasses Salinger’s in thematic (even prophetic) salience and world-historical import. It seems to me that a word as malleable as “perfect” in a world as dangerous as ours should only be deployed for writers whose stakes are genuinely commensurate with the times. Salinger, as amazingly as he could convey a particular kind of grief, is simply not that writer.

  3. KWG: Define “substance.” By “substance,” do you mean “careful, knowing treatment of well-worn, sure-fire Dramatic Themes like the Passing of Time, Time’s Work on the Soul, Love Through the Bad Times, Families Falling Part and Coming Back Together Again”? Have you ever considered that maybe fiction doesn’t have to concern itself explicitly with world history nor be “commensurate with the times” in order to be significant? Perhaps some things are timeless… things like the search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world… confronting the paradox of a man who, we later learn, seems to be the wisest child in a family of wise children, who nonetheless forsakes the world out of pain and despair. Perhaps you should attend to the spirituality in Salinger’s work, his reasons for living, which are boldly stated at the end of “Franny and Zooey” and other works in a way that few writers will ever have the grace or courage to emulate. Or the unresolved Zen quality of his best short stories. Perhaps your opinion is bankrupt if you think Wes Anderson would agree to be called “better than” Salinger—I’m fairly certain Wes took inspiration from Salinger, understands and appreciates him a hell of a lot better than you do, but is doing his own thing as an artist. If all you will grant Salinger is the gift of craft, in dismissive quotation marks, maybe you don’t deserve great men. Good grief.

  4. Stephen – indeed I did ‘attend to the spirituality’ at the end of “Franny and Zooey,” which I found quite moving at the time but have since outgrown. I do not think Wes Anderson is in any way better or inferior to Salinger; I wanted to emphasize that Salinger’s principal themes are as shopworn and musty as the elbow patch on Bill Murray’s tweed coat. Furthermore, he was hardly the finest practitioner of misunderstood “wise men” abnegating the world. He fairly well lived that theme, by all accounts. What exactly is an “unresolved Zen quality?” I’m curious, really. Maybe it is melodramatic self-involvement that prevents you from allowing me to express an opinion about fiction and the canonization of “perfection.” Or maybe you’re just a buffoon.

  5. An egregious assumption made here and here: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2012/11/schools_should_replace_catcher_in_the_rye_with_black_swan_green.html is that the replacement, or not, of an epic, universally representative coming-of-age novel should be written by a man or offer only the male perspective. Otherwise it’s not universal, right? Consider that the “boy/man struggling with the meaning of life offers moral lesson, insight and introspection” narrative isn’t exactly the same experience of about half the population. I’m always disappointed that articles such as these – which I enjoyed despite, so, yes, I’m prepared for the “this doesn’t have anything to do with gender” chest-thumping response – always presume that comparable works are male-authored.

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