J. D. Salinger died this week. The frenzy has begun over what may be stashed away somewhere in his hermitage. When a writer who is a venerated icon disappears from the publically printed page for 45 years it raises curiosity, especially when family and friends claim this personage continued to write every day.
Among the literati** there is anticipation of some new masterpiece that they can dissect and interpret for the illiterati, meaning all the rest of us.
The Cult of Caulfield will be licking their no-longer adolescent lips that some sequel to Catcher will appear from out the fabled safe of Cornish.
Even more enthralled will be publishing houses salivating at the money to be made from posthumous Salinger.
It will be interesting if all that is found are stacks and stacks of pages typed (like the main character did in “The Shining) with the repeated sentence, “All work and no play make Jerome a dull boy.”
I read Catcher in the Rye the first time, and the second time, maybe even the third time, when I was in high school. At some point I even wrote a defense of its use of a certain then-forbidden word arguing it was key to understanding the novel. Whether my viewpoint on this has changed I don’t know. I haven’t read the book for quite a number of years now.
It would probably be difficult to find someone who came to their teen years by 1951 or later who hasn’t read that book. My wife read it before she met me. My children have read it.
I was more influenced by Nine Stories.
The two other books, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction never really resonated with me. I guess that really cements me as one of the illiterati. I tried to be a faithful follower of Salinger and dutifully plowed through these compilations of the Glass family, but I just couldn’t develop a caring interest in their tribulations. I did write a parody of Seymour: An Introduction.
EXERPT FROM “SEYMOUR: A BATH” (1965)
On that night, realizing, most likely, that his childhood had ended with his last performance on “it’s a Wise Child”, he headed for a longstanding Glass Family retreat, the bathtub. The record for length of bath had been set by Waker two years earlier, a bath of four and a half hours. For some reason, Seymour decided to break this watermark, probably to prove a devotion to the principle of Zen, something he had begun to explore with great zest.
Seymour, oldest of the Glass children (I’m next eldest) eased into the tub of lukewarm water and sat for an hour loudly reciting Chinese poetry. Seymour was himself a poet, even though he hadn’t written a single line of poetry. Even so, there was no doubt that Seymour was a true poet.
For the next three hours, he contemplated every inch of wall and ceiling, trying to explain why such a colored wall existed, what purpose for him this ceiling had and why he withdrew from people.
At this point, he began to imagine he was in the ocean surrounded by weird creatures, which he referred to as bananafish, and the drain became a banana hole. Here was his purpose in life. His main duty would be to enlarge the hole and save the bloated bananafish, swollen from overeating.
And etc. etc. etc.
But I don’t mean to deprecate Salinger. He could have never written anything except Catcher in the Rye and established his place in literature. He had an impact on generations of writers who followed him.
I’m a mere nobody. My published output probably wouldn’t fill many more pages than his four books and who would care? Catcher sold 60,000,000 copies; I might have had 60 readers. That’s actually a gross underestimate. Truth is my work has been published in several high circulation and international magazines and reprinted in a few anthologies. Still, my impact is about as stunning as one bananafish in an ocean of milk. If you mention the name of J. D. Salinger there is immediate recognition by everyone. If you mention my name, you will get a blank stare and the question, “Who?”
In a way I achieved something I wanted, anonymity.
Salinger hid away and wrote what he wished. He didn’t cede to the demands of others. Perhaps he never wanted all that fame to begin with. It came to him late. He was about forty when Catcher appeared on the scene and caused popular attention to come his way.
When fame did come it was too great and too late to escape into anonymity and with his death he may not escape those demands of others.
I don’t have to concern myself with that problem. If I died tonight no one is coming looking for my safe of manuscripts tomorrow. And a lot of such manuscripts do exist. Perhaps my children will do something with them, two of my children do write. You see it isn’t that I wish to hide my opuses. It’s that I prefer to hide me.
I suppose I should admire Salinger because he disappeared from the spotlight. In a rare interview he said, “I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure”. You have people who say it is the lofty goal to do art for art’s sake. My own view is if you are writing for no one to read, then that is a form of insanity. Remember, we’re not talking about a diary or journal here. We’re speaking of short stories and novels. A writer who writes only for him or her self doesn’t have the backbone to be a writer. A true writer doesn’t write with ink, they write with their blood and they want to bleed all over somebody.
I never wrote anything in my life I didn’t want others to read. After Catcher, Salinger had a ready audience eager to read what he wrote. I wonder why he didn’t have the guts to let them?
**Literati: A strange beast characterized by an oversized head and known for uttering long sounds other animals can’t understand. Its main diet consists of books often hard to digest. It must be approached with caution since it holds anyone in distain whomever has admitted to enjoying a bestseller (especially if by Stephen King) and can lash out viciously. Fortunately, due to its penchant for over-syllabified utterances is seldom understood. It can’t be tracked by identifying its droppings since it leaves none being full of itself, and thus can be rightly said to be full of it.