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Franny and Zooey and J.D. and Me

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.

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About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

15 responses »

  1. It’s amazing, isn’t it, that four slim books could carry such power? You were smarter than I was to avoid the obits — the image of Salinger as a crazed old man supposedly doing wacky things like drinking his own urine was a bit much for me. But like you, I don’t really REALLY care about the artist and his biography — the work speaks for itself. What I’m hoping now is that there really are more novels and stories crammed in his hermit’s closets that will finally see the light of day. Thanks for the beautiful post — a lot better than the columns I’ve seen by so-called professionals (though the 2 English profs on the PBS News Hour the other night were pretty cool).

  2. The unbroken rhythm is as though I am thinking this myself.

    Thanks for keeping me from inadvertantly listening to anything that might influence my thinking about a man I did not know existed until just now.

    It has a nice ring, Ann Glass Nichols……

  3. Thanks, Ann.

  4. (Do you still not want to hear what anyone else thinks about him…?) 🙂

    I’m shocked that’s there’s anyone out there who’s not heard of him, too, I’ve gotta say…

    Perhaps it depended on the teacher you had who assigned the book and led class discussion… For me, it was “Parky” (a nickname) and I would not have known to read “Catcher”, still *my* favorite, had he not introduced it to the class.

    I enjoyed the class discussion, not just because it was the only book we were assigned that was about a teenager (and feelings I could relate to), but also because “dissecting it” was a means to expressing what we liked and remembering all that was great about it. It felt like being in a book club and talking about our favorite parts.

    Just my two cents worth.

    • I don’t mind hearing what individual humans that I know think about him; there are posts all over the internet in which various pundits are co-opting his death as an opportunity to show off and talk about themselves. It happens all the time, I just don’t usually care.

      Although I view Parky pretty dimly from the perspective of adulthood, I do think I would have enjoyed the book much, more if I’d been in his class. He was kind of a hip oldster, and I was taught by a kind of tightly laced matron. I like the book club description; that would have been infinitely better.

      I always care what you think, dude.

      • Interesting to note at least one parallel between Salinger and “Parky”, from the perspective of adulthood…

  5. Pingback: Salinger’s Franny and Zooey « Jorie's Reads

  6. Nice page! I’m glad I found this.

  7. Love this post. He was one of my faves as well and I’m just hoping his heirs don’t burn his papers! Don’t you just love the way 8th grade English class can ruin things with talk of THEMES? I really want to go back and read Franny and Zooey.

    • Well thanks; I hadn’t even thought of that, but it may be exactly what he asked them to do. Ihear that he had written many more things, including other novels, that he never even submitted. The idea of them being destroyed makes my stomach hurt.

      Go, forthwith, re-read! I think it gets better every time.

  8. You took the words right out of my mouth. Great post. I searched long and hard for an online collection of Salinger’s writings that appeared in various publications through the 40’s and 50’s. Somehow I stumbled onto this:

    I was beyond excited to find it. Hope you enjoy it.

    • First, thanks for reading.

      Second, thanks SO much for the link to more Salinger!! It’s like getting a present!


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