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Reflections On J.D. Salinger

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My high school English literature class had us choose three books from a list of eleventh-grade level classics to write book reports on. One of my three books was Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which I inhaled in a day and a half. Unlike the experience of many of my peers, my inhale was adrenalized and resentful. According to my book report, Holden was a self-righteous jerk whose accusations of phoniness were unjustified; it is much easier to denounce all of society and its norms, I wrote, than to genuinely attempt to engage with it, to parse its biases and discern the well-intentioned in people.

Coming from a high school student who lacked the literary background to appreciate Salinger’s unorthodox voice and style, for whom personal impressions were primary, my criticisms were hardly groundbreaking. Further, belonging to roughly the same age group as Holden, I didn’t realize that his angst was the typical and wholly forgivable angst of his age group—what teenager isn’t at one point or another riddled by existentially weighty issues? I myself was going through a similar phase, though unlike Holden, my own angst was of the abstract, heady variety that manifests itself in sulkiness and the desire for ample amounts of alone time. Upon retrospect, I see that my response to Catcher was defensive, and reflected my discomfort regarding the discrepancy between the seriousness of my adolescent unhappiness, and my failure to act. Unlike Holden, I wasn’t doing poorly in school, and I didn’t have any desire to run away, and these facts made me feel like a phony. In any case, after I was finished with my book report, I was done with Holden, and I didn’t think about Salinger for the next couple of years.

I returned to Salinger’s work after discovering Franny and Zooey my sophomore year of college. I picked up the book at the library on a whim, and read it in a day. When I was finished, I borrowed Nine Stories, and also read that with appetite. I loved the deceptive straight-talk that watermarked a Salinger narrator, and the way many of his stories were centered around a subtle alteration of mood. I was enamored with the members of the Glass Family, and aspired (as it turns out, like many of my contemporaries) to be a Franny. It became clear to me why Salinger is afforded such an important role in literary history. His style and voice are monumental. His depiction of young people is pitch perfect (this, after all, is why Catcher in the Rye was able to get under my skin in the way it did), and, as demonstrated by stories like “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor,” and “A Perfect Day For Bananafish,” he does muted shellshock just as well as Hemingway.

Salinger’s characters are delightfully Salinger-esque. They simultaneously possess the moral underpinnings and intellectual gifts of their nineteenth century forebears, and the cynicism and alienation of their “postmodern” descendents. Like actors on a stage, they are revealed through their physicality—their dress, gesture, posture, gait (this mode of presentation later influenced Wes Anderson). They are not cynical or unhappy as the result of being unable to excel, or to meet societal standards—on the contrary, they are often exceptionally intelligent and beautiful. And though Salinger writes about money, class, and war, the problems his characters face are never merely psychological, and the “morals” of his stories do not take the form of social criticism. Rather, they are existential, full stop; they concern questions about authenticity, the self, and personal identity.

I started to think about Salinger again after his death last year. One discovers a kind of irony in considering the transition from Catcher in the Rye to Salinger’s later works. Holden famously complaints:

I hate actors. They never act like people. They just think they do. Some of the good ones do, in a very slight way, but not in a way that’s fun to watch. And if any actor’s really good, you can always tell he knows he’s good, and that spoils it.

While the Salinger of Catcher in the Rye was skeptical about the quest for authenticity, I read later Salinger as admirably attempting to straddle the line between the fact of identity’s essentially performative nature (of identity as a project that has to be freely chosen by the subject, in a Sartrean sense) and the potential for this performativity to undermine its very purpose, to “spoil it.” In a way, later Salinger shares in the guilt I experienced as a teenager. Just as I was worried about the discrepancy between inner and outer, my theoretical views and the actions that I did not take, Salinger is concerned with the disjointedness between the self, and the inadequacy of an agent’s expression of it.

I was surprised to learn that Salinger had died. Because I hadn’t read anything recent by him, I had always assumed that he’d died a long time ago. Upon reading about the solitary lifestyle he led, and his decision to stop publishing his work, I wondered whether guilt had anything to do with this decision. I wondered whether his final conclusion was that one could only encounter the self in solitude, where the threat of phoniness loses its sway.TC mark

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    • http://stephentullydierks.blogspot.com stephen

      i recommend his later works, “seymour: an introduction” and “raise high the roof beam, carpenters.” and it’s “the catcher in the rye,” not “catcher in the rye,” not trying to be annoying, just i see people saying it wrong pretty regularly.

    • GUEST

      Sweet; I liked this.

    • Anonymous

      ta.gg/4vh

    • Aelya

      :’)

      Liked this

    • Kayla

      I’ve heard mostly negative things about “the catcher in the rye” in my literature classes thus far in college, mostly from fellow students, so I’m glad to see something positive about it. I was never asked to read it in high school and have been hesitant to try it out, but after reading this I may put it in my line up. Thanks! 

    • Grant Sorenson

      This is really wonderful. Thank you for such a thoughtful piece. Nice to have a change from the norm.

    • Joel

      I recently went through a similar rediscovery of Salinger, it is nice to read your thoughts. On Thought Catalog of all places!

    • kaylee

      always loved the catcher in the rye

    • martin

      i like your idea of salinger “spoiling” his own authenticity in his later works. it seems  plausible, especially if you look  at the last piece he ever published ( the title is something like “Hapworth..”, I can’t remember) which is a letter from 7-year-oldish seymour glass to his parents. salinger seems to have gotten a bit carried away in his obsession with seymour’s brilliance: the style is not the one of a seven-year-old at all (more like a cynical college professor in his 40s’s), he has a vocabulary that far exceeds mine, and he is asking his parents to send him about 20 books (if i remember correctly, he is asking for some tolstoy novel and a japanese grammar book, among other stuff that no seven year old in the world would ever read).

      i read the piece online while i was going through a phase of serious salinger-obsession. i was extremely excited to find it, but i found it so incredibly unrealistic and pretentious (how is anyone expected to believe a little kid would enjoy tolstoy and japanese grammar??!) that is sort of marked the end of my salinger-obsession.

      in “catcher”, holden once listens to a guy called ernie play the piano. he believes that the fact that ernie KNOWS how good he is precisely what’s ruining his piano-playing. he concludes that if he knew how to play he’d do it in a “goddam closet”. franny is concerned with your same dilemma – she quits acting because she is disgusted by the “idea of wanting to act in the first place”. so the idea that salinger stopped writing (or, more precisely, publishing) out of guilt for not living up to his own high (and unrealistic?) standards is very interesting. thanks for your article!

      • Anonymous

         I always thought the depiction of Seymour in “Hapworth 16, 1924” was supposed to be sort of showing the pretension of Seymour, even though Salinger commonly displayed his character’s peculiarities in earnest, this time I felt he was poking fun at him.
        But maybe that was just me justifying how unrealistic little Seymour was.
        Still a very enjoyable read.

    • Anonymous

      ta.gg/4vh

    • federico

      most people think holden caulfield is an asshole , it’s not fair really

    • es

      “Salinger’s characters are delightfully Salinger-esque.”
      ASTUTE MY FRIEND

    • http://twitter.com/galette_rois Julian Galette

      Reading Franny recently really colored my impression of Salinger. It’s just all about over-privleged white people problems. There was a point, right around the start of senior year in HS, where I really identified with Holden and his dislike of the phonies, but now I look at him as just another schmuck wallowing in his existential angst and want to tell him to grab a beer and chill the fuck out. 

      And I guess it doesn’t help that I went to Ursinus which is always harping on it’s Salinger connection despite his short and miserable time there. 

    • http://twitter.com/galette_rois Julian Galette

      Reading Franny recently really colored my impression of Salinger. It’s just all about over-privleged white people problems. There was a point, right around the start of senior year in HS, where I really identified with Holden and his dislike of the phonies, but now I look at him as just another schmuck wallowing in his existential angst and want to tell him to grab a beer and chill the fuck out. 

      And I guess it doesn’t help that I went to Ursinus which is always harping on it’s Salinger connection despite his short and miserable time there. 

    • Anonymous

      You should read the new Salinger biography, it’s really interesting.
      Though I know the concept of being enthralled by his life is exactly what Salinger would hate most, and spent his whole life trying to prevent. But I like it even though it makes me feel so very conflicted the whole time I’m reading it. 

    • thomas

      Read Franny and Zooey sophomore year in HS. The book was 90% existential tension, that looked like it was going to lead to a promising ending in which the teenage protagonist finds authenticity / meaning / whatever in her life. I remember specifically, when describing a books on a bookshelf, that Salinger name dropped Fear & Trembling.

      OK.

      Fear & Trembling by Kierkegaard. Aesthetic, ethical, religious. Fascinating concepts.

      Then I read the ending to Franny. Some vague “fat lady” bullshit. Needless to say, I was pissed off at how psuedo-intellectual/philosophical it ended, which made the whole novel a pile of bullshit.

    • thomas

      Read Franny and Zooey sophomore year in HS. The book was 90% existential tension, that looked like it was going to lead to a promising ending in which the teenage protagonist finds authenticity / meaning / whatever in her life. I remember specifically, when describing a books on a bookshelf, that Salinger name dropped Fear & Trembling.

      OK.

      Fear & Trembling by Kierkegaard. Aesthetic, ethical, religious. Fascinating concepts.

      Then I read the ending to Franny. Some vague “fat lady” bullshit. Needless to say, I was pissed off at how psuedo-intellectual/philosophical it ended, which made the whole novel a pile of bullshit.

    • your cousin

      See more glass. Did you see more glass?

    • http://twitter.com/phamjam Andrew Pham

      Brilliant article.  Loved it almost as much as I love Salinger.

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