30 January 2010

A Brief Word on J.D. Salinger

Like many, perhaps most, adolescents, I was drawn instantly to Holden Caulfield, the narrator and central figure in J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye — but less for the way he feels about the world than for the way he expresses himself. That voice! It is a siren song, luring other writers to destruction — because we all try to mimic it, when we are young and think ourselves rebels, misfits, and loners. This is the ironic conformity of the most resolutely non-conformist among us. We never mind that imitation is the sincerest form of phoniness.

I soon realized that, whenever I reread Catcher in the Rye, I began to write in a voice that sounded like Holden’s. I’d be stuck in it for weeks. I couldn’t help myself.

And though the narrative voice that Salinger employs in his other fiction is not precisely Holden’s, it’s hardly less potent. Some time after I graduated college, I realized that I would have to set Salinger aside, if I wanted ever to find a voice that was my own. I don’t say that the results were superior, but they belonged to me.

So it is that I read Catcher in the Rye several times; Franny and Zooey twice; the other fiction only once. I haven’t returned to any of it in many years, and prior to Salinger’s death this week, I couldn’t have named all the Glass children, or told you whether Franny or Zooey was the sister.

What strikes me now, as I look back, is how little I see: almost nothing of Salinger’s fiction stuck with me. No lesson, no scene, no affection. Some of it strikes me as irritating, as for example, both Holden and Zooey do. Some of it strikes me as preposterous, particularly after having lived in (and thereby created) New York for myself. Zen on Park Avenue? Was he serious?

This is not to discount the admirable artistic achievement of Salinger’s authorial voice; it is rather to wonder whether, after all, he said much worth hearing. Is it only quantitatively that his output was slim? I haven’t mourned his long, unpublished isolation; and I will feel ambivalence, whether his post-Hapworth writings are published now or not.


Elaine Fine said...

When I read Catcher in the Ryefor the first time I wrote a whole summer of teenage letters in Holden's voice!

The fact that a writer could create a voice for a character that bleeds its way into a reader's subconscious, particularly into a young reader's subconscious, is probably the most remarkable thing about , but it is remarkable.

(I still think of my attempts to figure out how to pronounce Phoebe's name. She was "Faux-eeb" to me until I actually met someone who had the same name a few years after reading the book.)

Gosh, could you imagine what our correspondence would have been like if we were writing letters back and forth that summer?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if he really wrote much of anything after Hapworth, seems unlikely.

William V. Madison said...

Elaine, what indescribable regret is mine that we didn't enter into that teenaged correspondence! The results would have been hilarious -- and published on the spot. We'd be soooo famous now, we'd have to become recluses.

Grigori, that Salinger did continue to write is fairly clear: he said as much. Whether we'll see any of that is another question. (He surely followed with profound personal interest the news of the posthumous publication of Nabokov's The Original of Laura.)

And, as I say, whether we want to see it, yet another question.

Sue said...

Your analysis is well-considered. I have the same thoughts, though I'd never have been able to articulate them as nicely as you. A pleasure to read.

Girl From Texas said...

I have long felt that Holden is important not just for his slice-of-life (East Coast, educated, moneyed, slangy) diction, and Salinger sentient not just for exploring new art forms (working in the stream-of-consciousness and adolescent coming-of-age metiers), but that Holden as a character represents something much deeper in regards to the American psyche. He is almost a funnel for the author's comment on our society as a whole. Holden's sense of failure and hapless flailing about speak to post WWII Cold War Era American angst on just these very issues. We won the war but so what? Or perhaps more to the point, now what ? Consumerism and militarism and the whole mess of late 20th century western values aside, I see Holden as a direct descendant of Thoreau, a young man observing the world around him, questioning what he has been taught to accept as good, and trying to create for himself a more authentic norm, a more meaningful way of living - and just struggling with all these issues precisely b/c he is an intelligent, thinking adolescent (as American was , in the 20th century), a bit naive, and hapless romantic . The next question then becomes, if I move in to adult hood, how do I conduct myself ? What is my legacy ? How do I want others to regard me ? What do I value ? Novels become important precisely because they tap in to the zeitgeist of an era - which I've always felt Catcher in the Rye did. Agree or disagree, it provokes one into thinking and talking about the characters, the issues, the themes involved - lo these 50 years later.

William V. Madison said...

Surely you don't suppose that I considered Catcher to be concerned only with the immediate confines of Pencey Prep and Central Park!

As it happens, I don't disagree with your analysis of Salinger's broader concerns — though the fact of their existence doesn't make the author's work any more memorable or compelling to me.

However, you may find an ally among the French "public intellectuals." Just the other day I heard a radio program in which one of the panelists declared Salinger "the inventor of the postwar American teenager." (After all, Catcher was published before James Dean made a single movie.)