Thursday, February 04, 2010

J. D. Salinger: Was I Too Harsh on the Man?

Cornish-Windsor Bridge
Photo by Gretchen Ertl
(Image froom The New York Times)

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 . . . .

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.
But he still doesn't sound like an easy man:
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 . . . .

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.
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.

Maybe I ought to re-read Catcher? What do you all think?

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At 10:10 AM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...

I personally don’t like "Dr. Pepper" soda pop, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t resonate with the taste buds of others. No matter what the collective state may try, we are all individuals with our own likes and dislikes (Sound a bit like Mr. Salinger’s work?). This also extends to what we think of any person based on his/her interactions with the world as a whole, but it was his life to do with as he so pleased as long as he didn’t enter the world into one of those state collectives either by birth or choice.

So what if he was prickly and reclusive? He left a work of art that resonated/resonates with many and went out on top. Personally, I didn’t care for his masterpiece or his lifestyle, but I don’t begrudge those he think he was the reincarnation of Shakespeare. And, I know I’m not alone in my observations as roughly 60+% of my fellow Americans won’t be watching the big game this weekend, somehow we’ll muddle through those three-plus hours not following in the TV viewing patterns of the worshippers of all-things football and find other distractions that resonate with up to pass the time with. With today’s abundance of distractions, life continues to get better and better no matter what the naysayers would have you believe. Now, I’m off to get my coke of choice, a “Pepsi,” because I don’t drink pop. And, yes, Coke's monopoly in my neck of the woods means that nearly all native South Texans refer to all carbonated beverages as cokes instead of colas or fizzy water.

At 10:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Big game? Is there a big game this weekend?

As a kid, I could endure only Dr. Pepper, Root Beer, and Sprite/Seven-Up.

I still like Sprite/Seven-Up, and a cold Root Beer is fine, but I now find Dr. Pepper too sweet.

Here's a childhood ditty:

Coca-Cola went to town,
Pepsi-Cola knocked him down,
Dr. Pepper fixed him up,
Now we all drink Seven-Up.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah't the hell's a "Reeve?"

I'd apply, sound's like an interesting position - still - were I appointed such:

Specially that "appointed" part... well, I don't know certain... but I 'spect I'd be quiet too.

E,f'ingspecially under the described circumstances.


At 12:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, I recall a family of Reeves back in the Ozarks . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:38 PM, Blogger John B said...

Perhaps you should look at his other works before revisiting CATCHER? Like FRANNY AND ZOOEY.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe so, John B.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:35 PM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...

Wow! That is an old one. My favorite soft drink is actually Big Red, but it is a regional beverage and hard to find outside of Texas.

It wasn't until I took to driving big rigs moving household furniture during my college summers (after the family farm went belly up), that I realized that what I ate from my local H.E.B. wasn't quite the same as those shopping in Kroger, Winn-Dixie, Vons, Ralphs, Food Lion, Randall's, Fiesta, Piggly Wiggly, Brookshire's, A&P, etc. I also found out that 3-liter sodas are pretty much only sold in Texas.

At 5:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I heard it in my Ozark hometown in the mid-60s at an auction barn where cattle were being sold. One of the local hillbillies was singing it.

I lived in Waco for nearly five years, so I know of Big Red . . . but I can't recall if I drank any. By that time, I was getting more interested in beer, and the drinking age back then in Texas was 18.

Jeffery Hodges

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