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…
Notwithstanding 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.