Thursday, January 28, 2010


J.D. Salinger is gone

I just heard the news about the death of J.D. Salinger at 91. The author of The Catcher in the Rye and one of my favorite portraits of callow self-fabrication, "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," had been in seclusion so long that I tended to forget he was still alive: he seemed to occupy some silent Purgatorio in Cornish, N.H., to which the occasional plucky journalist ventured in hopes of ambushing him at the general store.

Yet he never vanished from the public consciousness. His detractors wrote him off as a precious purveyor of "New Yorker fiction." (Even John Cheever, often lumped in the same group, let fly at Salinger during a bad hair day in 1961, ranting at William Maxwell's proposed cuts to a recent story submission: "You cut that short story... and I'll never write another story for you or anybody else. You can get that Godamned sixth-rate Salinger to write your Godamned short stories but don't expect anything more from me." In his journal, however, Cheever was quick to recant, noting that "I admire Salinger... and I think I know where his giftedness lies and how rare it is.") In more recent years, memoirs by Joyce Maynard (the author's teen concubine in the early 1970s) and Margaret Salinger (the author's daughter) have smudged his reputation further. The New York Times has conveniently compressed these disclosures, along with Salinger's spiritual dabblings, into a single, savory paragraph:
Mr. Salinger pursued Scientology, homeopathy and Christian Science, according to the daughter. He also drank urine, and sat in a Reichian orgone box, Ms. Salinger wrote. He spoke in tongues, fasted until he turned greenish and as an older man had pen pal relationships with teenage girls.
So much for the life (and let's recall that Saul Bellow and many other heavy hitters did their time in the orgone box during the Fifties). That leaves the work. Salinger's books have never stopped selling--especially Catcher in the Rye, which remains a touchstone for chafing adolescents worldwide. And he continues to earn praise from other quarters, too, some of them quite unexpected. When I covered an appearance by J.M.G. Le Clezio last April, I was surprised to hear that the Hermit of Cornish had a prominent spot in the Noble laureate's pantheon:
At this point the two writers shared a moment of lexicological bliss (Gopnik indicated a preference for the big illustrated Larousse). Then they moved on to another of Le Cl├ęzio's early infatuations: J.D. Salinger, who Gopnik described as "one of the local gods" at The New Yorker. What the French author loved about Salinger was, in a sense, what he loved about the dictionary: an accumulation of luminous details, and the feeling that "each word is a world by itself." He had particular praise for "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which he called "one of the best short stories ever written."
ADDENDUM: My pal David Shields has been working on a secret biographical project for some time. Now Nikki Finke has finally revealed his subject (which turned out not to be David Hasselhoff after all): yes, folks, it's J.D. Salinger. The book has been assembled in tandem with an equally hush-hush documentary by 37-year-old screenwriter Shane Salerno. You can get all the details here.

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I was sadden to hear the loss of J.D. Salinger. He will be missed, but he will surely live on in his works of literary genius.
Thanks for stopping by, Jenna, and yes, I'm sure that Salinger's books will ensure him a lengthy afterlife.
Hey, wow James! I wrote a very hurried little post on my way out the door about ten seconds after hearing the news; meant to come back to it with something more interesting, but then of course didn't. Think I'll just link to you, as usual.

At one stage I had a proof copy of Ian Hamilton's biography of Salinger, the one that was blocked from publication until some offending bit had been taken out... this was probably about 23 years ago. (Feck.) Unfortunately at some point, me being married to a secondhand book dealer at the time, I must have decided I was bored of it and the money would come in more handy, because I no longer have it. About once a month lately I remember this and curse that easy access to second-hand cash.

Hope you're well, your recent travels sound a little too exciting for me to read about in full... xx
Greetings, Ms. B! I love that Ian Hamilton book--it's the best frustrated biographer's tale ever. But as I recall, it wasn't just an offending bit he was forced to remove. Salinger's legal team obliged Hamilton to remove almost all quotations from his (Salinger's letters). He had to go back into the book at the galley stage and paraphrase every last word. Poor guy.
Ohhh, hmm. I thought it was one letter. But for it to be lots makes sense too - JDS would hardly have been satisfied with less... and btw you should really, if you can get your hands on it, read Hamilton's Collected Poems. A slim but extremely elegant volume.
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