J. D. Salinger: Was I Too Harsh on the Man?
I may have been too harsh on old J. D. Salinger in my blog post the first of this month. Most of the comments ran in my favor in disparaging Catcher, and perhaps even went along with my negative view of Salinger himself:
[T]he Caulfield character didn't resonate with me. Growing up in the Ozarks, I didn't find the older generation "phony" at all. They fascinated me, the way that Mr. LeRoy Tucker's stories fascinate me . . . . [whereas Salinger,] as an individual, . . . seemed proud and self-centered, the sort of man who would order "his agent to burn any fan mail."However, I received a dissenting vote on my negative view of the man himself, and I take the dissent seriously because it comes from a blogger whom I respect, Mr. Jeff Sypeck, who authored Becoming Charlemagne and who blogs at Quid Plura. He posted this comment on my blog entry about Salinger:
Given that he spent the past 50 years in rural seclusion, I suspect Salinger would have found your elders in the Ozarks pretty charming.I hadn't thought of the man from that perspective, but I worried that Mr. Sypeck had a point.
And wouldn't you know it, the New York Times provided a corrective -- inadvertent perhaps? -- to the obituary (and to my prejudices) in an article by Katie Zezima: "J. D. Salinger a Recluse? Well, Not to His Neighbors" (January 31, 2010). From Zezima and the townspeople of Cornish, New Hampshire, one gets a far more favorable picture of the man:
Here Mr. Salinger was just Jerry, a quiet man who arrived early to church suppers, nodded hello while buying a newspaper at the general store and wrote a thank-you note to the fire department after it extinguished a blaze and helped save his papers and writings . . . .But he still doesn't sound like an easy man:
Cornish, a town of about 1,700 on the banks of the Connecticut River, has two general stores, a post office, a church and miles of pines, oaks, farmland and rolling hills. The town has long been a summer haven for artists and writers, a solitary escape in the woods.
By all accounts Mr. Salinger loved the area. He would, until recent years, vote in elections and attend town meetings at the Cornish Elementary School, and he went to the Plainfield General Store each day before it closed. He was often spotted at the Price Chopper supermarket in Windsor, separated from Cornish by a covered bridge and the now ice-jammed river, and he ate lunch alone at the Windsor Diner. Mr. Salinger was also said to have frequented the library at Dartmouth College and to have attended the occasional house party.
Mr. Salinger was a regular at the $12 roast beef dinners at First Congregational Church in Hartland, Vt. He would arrive about an hour and a half early and pass the time by writing in a small, spiral-bound notebook, said Jeannie Frazer, a church member. Mr. Salinger usually dressed in corduroys and a sweater, she said, and would not speak . . . .But perhaps he mellowed in later years, for his townspeople seem to have accepted and liked him even if he was a very quiet man . . . and there's certainly no crime in being a quiet fellow. At any rate, the article generally gives me a rather different, more positive image of Mr. J. D. Salinger.
Mr. Salinger did not approve of all the trappings of a New England life. Generations ago, towns appointed hog reeves -- people who caught livestock that ran away -- each year at a town meeting. In Cornish, for fun, newly married couples are appointed honorary hog reeves each year. In the 1950s Mr. Salinger and his first wife, Claire, were given the honor, Mr. [Stephen] Taylor said.
"By all accounts, he was not amused," Mr. Taylor said.
Maybe I ought to re-read Catcher? What do you all think?