Requiem for J. D. Salinger
I happened to notice that J. D. Salinger died the other day at the ripe old age of 91. Recalling that fact over dinner, I remarked to my wife:
"J. D. Salinger is dead."My daughter laughed. My son slurped his soup. I reflected upon Salinger's death . . . and his famous novel. It was supposed to be the voice of an adolescent generation in the 1950s, precocious baby boomers, I guess. Charles McGrath of the New York Times noted in an obituary (January 28, 2010):
"Who?" she said.
"J. D. Salinger. American author. Wrote Catcher in the Rye."
"Ah," she noted, a light coming on. "I didn't know he was still alive."
"He isn't," I said. "Not any more."
With its cynical, slangy vernacular voice (Holden's two favorite expressions are "phony" and "goddam"), its sympathetic understanding of adolescence and its fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world, the novel struck a nerve in cold war America and quickly attained cult status, especially among the young. Reading "Catcher" used to be an essential rite of passage, almost as important as getting your learner's permit.Well, we were told that it was supposed to be a rite of passage, so I dutifully read it as a teenager. It bored me to . . . well, not tears, but yawns. I found Holden Caulfield pretentious and unsympathetic, as one might expect in a character from the hand of an author who used to go "striding around campus in a black chesterfield with velvet collar and announcing that he was going to write the Great American Novel."
At dinner with my family, I suddenly realized why the 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. I'd rather read a novel by Tucker -- if he's written one -- than a short story by J. D. Salinger.
At the death of John Updike -- who once remarked on Salinger's "detriment of artistic moderation" -- I was saddened, and posted Updike's own proleptic poem on the sad passing, so here it is again:
I had a reply to Updike's ironic humility, which I posted then there and now here:RequiemIt came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
"Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise -- depths unplumbable!"
Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
"I thought he died a while ago."
For life's a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.
I thought that Salinger also deserved some sort of requiem, albeit one appropriate to my indifferent reaction at hearing of his death, so I borrowed from Updike again to compose some lines for an author who left me cold:ValedictionIt struck me wrong to hear you say,
Were you to die (you did today),
No one would think you still so full
Of promised depths unplumbable.
Did any shrug with tearless eyes,
At putative past-due demise?
The wide response, I think I know,
Was hope you didn't really go.
Because your life and work are huge,
Your death is more the subterfuge.
Thus, enter in the register:
"Not here." That's best I can concur.
I suppose that'll offend a few readers, but I have to be honest in my feelings about Salinger in his work and his life. I could be wrong, of course, about his work, for I never read anything else by the man than the Caulfield misadventure, but as an individual, he seemed proud and self-centered, the sort of man who would order "his agent to burn any fan mail."Requiem for J. D. S.It came to me the other day,
Just when you died -- I had to say --
"Hmm, that's a shame. Not young, but full
Of unkept promise plumbable."
With that, a shrug, and tearless eyes,
I met your overdue demise;
My wife's response was just, you know,
"I thought he died a while ago."
Your life, a shabby subterfuge,
Your death, unreal, not dark or huge,
No shock of it to register --
Except but where it did occur.
Yet if he really has two novels stashed away in a safe, and they turn out to be great, I'll eat my words . . . some of them, anyway, for I can't imagine changing my opinion of the Caulfield story.