J.D. Salinger: A Few Thoughts

January 30, 2010

Tags: J.D. Salinger

I read "The Catcher in the Rye" when I was thirteen or fourteen and enjoyed it. I can't recall to what extent I identified with Holden Caulfield--I think to identify COMPLETELY with Holden you had to be an adolescent male--but the character certainly resonated with me. And he did so with anyone who felt in any way suffocated by the same cheerleader/football game/pep rally/prom queen/homecoming miasma that overhung my secondary school years. Turns out there were a lot of us who felt that way.

Anyway, having read "Catcher," I decided to read Salinger's short stories, figuring that if I'd liked "Catcher," I'd like the stories.

I didn't, for the most part. "For Esme-With Love and Squalor" was pretty good. But the Glass family saga, what I could force myself to read of it, left me cold. I found it...dull. And for reasons I couldn't quite articulate at the time, annoying.

At first I attributed this to some failing in myself. Was I insufficiently intelligent to appreciate the stories? Insufficiently sensitive? It was not a question that kept me awake at night.

In adulthood, I realize exactly what it was that I found so ultimately dull and irritating about the the Glass family: They were too precious to live. Not simply that, but far too smart, too finely attuned to tiny imperfections, too tormented by the exigencies of daily life to survive on a planet inhabited by the rest of us lumpenschmucks. (If that's not a word, it should be. And I hereby copyright it.)

This is nihilism, and worse, it's elitist nihilism. Not that I object, particularly, to nihilism; I'm a cheerful realist, by which I mean I understand that a lot of life is awful, or, if not actively awful, sometimes boring, difficult, and unpleasant, but...one accepts that, and, as the saying goes, deals with it. I understand also, and accept also, that for some people, life becomes unendurable, and they need, and take, a quick exit from it. But Salinger's message was that the best people, the superior people, kill themselves. Or go mad.

This is some of the worst sort of self-serving nonsense ever promoted. Nonsense not only because it denies any kind of human resilience in the face of adversity (very minor adversity in the case of the members of the Glass family), but denies human achievement and endeavor as well. Self-serving because it enabled Salinger to promote himself as the arbiter of what was pure and sensitive.

Speaking of which: Salinger has long been noted, and in numerous instances praised, for his decision to retire from the hurly-burly of the world, and vulgar commerce, to write only to please himself and not for publication. Fine. But it should be remembered that he was only able to do this because "The Catcher in the Rye" has sold 60 million copies since its publication. The vast majority of writers do not have this luxury. If they don't publish, they don't eat.

A final point: Holden Caulfield's favorite term of condemnation was "phonies." By which he meant people who pretended to be something better, in some or many ways, than they were. I recall from "The Catcher in the Rye" that he branded people who effected great sensitivity as "phonies." (Remember that great line: "He's about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat"?) How ironic, then, that by Holden's definition, the operatically sensitive Glass family, particularly the insufferable Seymour, were...phonies.

Selected Works

Nonfiction
“This book is, quite simply, remarkable journalism and remarkable writing.”
--Robert B. Parker
"Taut with suspense...crackles like a bestselling novel." -- Barry Reed, author of The Verdict
Fiction
"Susan Kelly's maiden mystery is fresh and free-spirited with lively characters, snappy dialogue...and a suspenseful plot." -- Washington Post
“Spinetingling... noteworthy... brings the horror of being a victim into sharp focus.”
--Publishers Weekly
“Thought-provoking... a gritty, bittersweet story with added depth and dimension.”
--Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A page-turner with action and suspense." -- SSC Booknews
"A winner for fans of literate, witty mysteries." -- Tony Hillerman
"The Summertime Soldiers has love, sex, and murder and most of all, a heart." -- Boston Herald