Yesterday, my favorite author died. He was not exactly plucked in the flower of youth, being 91 and all. He also hadn’t published anything since shortly after my third birthday. Well, he didn’t ever publish a whole lot of anything, at least not anything I could easily get my hands on. He wrote three books, a collection of short stories, and a novella which appeared in “The New Yorker,” but which I have never found in buyable form. I have been trying really hard not to read anything being written about him right now, not blog posts, not opinion pieces, not even obituaries, because this is a private thing for me. I need a little time to think my own thoughts before I open myself up to a flood of writing about how Catcher in the Rye wasn’t really that great, how Salinger was not really very nice to his wives or his children, or how he was (pick one) overrated, underrated, wrong to become a recluse, right to become a recluse, etc. ad nauseum.
His is the voice I hear in my head when I write, and always has been. Mostly, that’s between him and me.
I started reading Salinger in middle school, stealing ancient copies of Franny and Zooey and Nine Short Stories that had belonged to my uncles. I stole them from my grandmother’s bookshelves, choosing them because they were old, and had funky vintage covers. I loved the short stories first, because they were more accessible; Seymour’s anguish and gentleness in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” slayed me every time. Every frickin’ time. Whenever I had a “free choice” for reading a book and writing a paper in school, I wrote about one of the stories. They had everything: love, resentment, suicide, alienation, irony, total lack of irony…for an adolescent interested in reading and writing, or being alive, it was a goldmine. There is still a copy of the stories, the same copy I stole 34 years ago, next to my bed.
Franny and Zooey took longer; I read it over and over first because I loved the dialogue, and later, because in her confusion about life and love and faith, Franny seemed to me to be a soul mate. I didn’t trouble myself with What it All Meant, I just read it because I loved the language, and the characters. I could have been a member of the Glass Family. I knew my way around their New York apartment, I could have been on “It’s a Wise Child” with them, read the books my older brothers told me to read, thumbed through the scrapbooks affixed to the living room walls. Later, much later, I decided to read The Way of the Pilgrim, the book Franny carries around with her throughout Franny and Zooey. By that time I was twice as old as Franny, old enough to be her mother, and I understood the lure of the beautiful, simple expression of faith and salvation in the book she carried.
Later, my roommate found me a used copy of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, and my Glass Family collection was complete. I had a bound genealogy of a family I knew better than my own, and a ready source of reassurance that I was not the only tightly wrapped, angsty, alienated, person who was not quite what they seemed to be. I wanted to live in New York, ride trains, have a Chesterfield and a Chiffarobe, drink cocktails, smoke cigarettes, and have a background of fame as a quiz kid that I could choose to disregard. I wanted to be able to write like Salinger did, from the pitch-perfect dialogue that rang true to me long after it was theoretically “dated,” to the incredible restraint that allowed the deepest feelings to be portrayed with not a faint whiff of the cliché or the maudlin. He was always the writer I wanted to be, and frankly, I didn’t care whether he was a nice guy, or that he was a recluse, or that he had maybe robbed the world of his gift. I wasn’t going to date him, or even meet him, and it just didn’t matter what he did in his private life.
I read Catcher in the Rye at some point before it was assigned in school, and then again when it was actually required reading; I remember that I liked the book, but that classroom discussion about Themes and Characters just about killed me. It was like a public autopsy for me, that mechanical dissection and parsing of the words and thoughts of someone who was my own. It was too heavy, too regimented, I kept wanting to raise my hand and explain that Salinger, my friend Salinger, had never sat around thinking about Themes of Youth and Alienation. I wanted to tell everybody that it was ironic (!) to be as “phony” about reading his book as Holden Caulfield believed the world to be. I didn’t do it, but I will say that Catcher, the only Salinger I ever had to read, is my least favorite. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have anything to do with the Glass family, but I suspect it has more to do with the classroom post-mortem.
Last fall, having discovered that I could check books out of the Michigan State University library as a “community member,” I decided to read some literary criticism of Salinger’s work. I had just read all of his books again, and (in that way I have of believing my thoughts are invalid unless confirmed by a better informed source) I wanted to see if he really was as great as I thought he was. I do see the problem with that line of thinking, but at the time I was heady with library access, and excited to learn What it All Meant, once and for all. So I started an essay about Freud in Salinger’s work, and within three sentences I felt as if I had bitten into a wormy apple. It was wrong, not what I expected, another example of taking apart everything mystical and beautiful in order to expose…what some other guy thought. I sampled other essays in several books, learned that Salinger wasn’t a really nice guy, learned that he had a long relationship with a young writer who wrote a terrifically unflattering book about it, and learned that he was erratic about religions and diets and philosophies. I took the books back to the library.
So yesterday, when Salinger died, it didn’t really change anything between us; our relationship was carried out entirely between his books and my brain. It seemed like everyone had an awful lot to say about his life, his writing, what they liked, what they didn’t; I think I saw 10 essays in different forums about why various people didn’t really like Catcher in the Rye. All I could think of was Holden, or Franny, observing the commotion and finding it to be a perfect example of what’s wrong with the world: phonies lining up to get a piece of the Big Thing of the Day. Some great writing and thinking, but mostly navel-gazing, snark, and/or intrusive and salacious glimpses into a personal world that Salinger worked very hard to keep personal. He wasn’t Brad Pitt, for God’s sakes.
So it didn’t change anything. I’m sorry that the man who could speak to me across generations isn’t in the world with me any longer, but everything that he gave me is still around, from the four books that are always with me, to the standards in my head about what counts as “good writing.” If there’s a heaven, I’m not sure he’s there. I’m not sure it matters.