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Remembering J.D. Salinger

by Marc C. Conner
Professor of English

J.D. Salinger’s stories could only have happened in America. Ours is a children’s literature. Huckleberry Finn, Little Pearl, Rip Van Winkle, Jay Gatsby – all our great characters are children, or at least childlike: they charm and enchant because they promise that, like Peter Pan, we might never grow up – that the defining American innocence can stay with us forever. J.D. Salinger’s imagination was completely in this American vein. Salinger’s children, such as Holden Caulfield and Franny Glass, continue to haunt readers to this day, for, like so many other children in our literature, they are victims, sacrifices to a world that will not accept them.

Salinger’s 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, is still very much a youth classic (I have freshmen every year who cite Salinger as their favorite author, and Catcher as their favorite novel). Yet what makes this novel so powerful is the moment of its appearance in American culture. It defines the mood of the fifties, chronicling the awful fragility of the young and innocent during a time of terror. Its famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is in terrified flight from the entire conventional world around him. But he cannot tell you what he flees. All Holden can point to is a general malaise, an overall complaint about American culture that he articulates in his most oft-used word, “phony.” “Phony” is a child’s word; but one of Salinger’s points is that the adults in the 1950’s were not attending to the wisdom that comes from the mouths of babes.

This is one of the great ironies of the legacy of Catcher in the Rye: it is not a revolutionary book, it does not call for overturning the world, nor promote an alternative culture; rather, it is a cry for the adults to do what they are supposed to do – to nurture and train their children, to show their children how to live in the world, to provide that most dreaded phrase for youth, “role models.” It is a profoundly conservative book, and it lays the blame for the world squarely at the feet of the adults. For every adult Holden turns to fails him; as he says of his old history teacher, Mr. Spencer, “He wasn’t even listening. He hardly ever listened to you when you said something.”

It may seem, in retrospect, that Salinger’s status outweighs his rather modest achievements: from 1948 to 1963, he published four small books – one novel and 13 stories. The first was Catcher in the Rye, followed by Nine Stories in 1953, Franny and Zooey in 1961, and finally Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, in 1963. Then Salinger’s famous literary silence began. Although I suspect the excess and infantilism of the sixties horrified Salinger, nevertheless his work clearly anticipates that troubled time, and offers a fine example of how the 1960’s have their roots in the 1950’s. For Salinger writes of the alienation of youth, of the plight of quick young things who come to confusion, who find the traditional ideas and attitudes not just unsatisfying but downright deadly.

Here we most clearly see the oft-noted comparison between Catcher and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Huck’s voice has much in common with Holden’s voice: given the differences of time and culture, both are the same voice of honest, direct, colloquial youth, giving us the straight story, with no “lies,” as Huck would say, and no “phoniness,” as Holden would say. Huck is only safe as long as he stays on the River, away from the world of death and betrayal that he meets every time he gets back on shore. For Holden, there is no such safe place, no river he can find, no territory he can light out to at the end. Holden is stuck in the world he is in, trying to be the catcher in the rye of falling children.

Salinger’s departure from the public world of writing has puzzled two generations of readers. Why did he stop writing? Some say his embrace of Buddhism helped him relinquish the desire to publish his work. Others speculate that he was so disenchanted with the world that he refused to contribute his voice to it any longer. Holden’s famous last line suggests such a withdrawal: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything,” he says. “If you do, you start missing everybody.” Perhaps Salinger stopped telling us things because he did not want to miss everybody afterward. Yet there remains a stubborn optimism to his writings. Even Holden, writing from his psychiatric ward, has given us his confession. Why put the whole story down for someone to read, if it all points to nihilism? No, the writing of the book is precisely Holden’s therapy, as perhaps it was Salinger’s, too. If we regret his silence, we treasure the books, and are perhaps heartened to think that they brought Salinger to the peace he sought.

Marc C. Conner is professor of English at Washington and Lee University. This piece was published in the Feb. 9, 2010, edition of the Roanoke Times.