Monday, February 01, 2010

Requiem for J. D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger
Photographer: Lotte Jacobi
(Image from New York Times)

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."

"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."
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):
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:
It 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 had a reply to Updike's ironic humility, which I posted then there and now here:
It 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 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:
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.
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."

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.

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At 4:30 AM, Blogger kushibo said...

I think it really does matter what was going on in your own life at the time you read it. As I wrote at my blog:

The book impressed me, though not in the life-changing way that made some people hunt down poor Mr Salinger so they could tell him how life-changing it was. If I'd met him, I would have simply said, "I loved your book," and then asked him how New Hampshire was. I remember from the book thinking how screwed up some adults were and how that ended up screwing up some kids and adolescents. (That message resonated a bit with me, because at the time I was in some student leadership positions where I ended up going head-to-head with a handful of teachers and administrators who, well, had lackluster ethics and were in need of recalibrating their moral compass and their life's direction; that's all I have to say about that.)

Had I read the book, say, one or two years earlier, I might have gotten the same lackluster impression as you did. I also grew up thinking the things adults did and said were fascinating — most of them, anyway. It was actually that blind trust of adults (particularly authority figures) that brought me squarely into the aforementioned trouble.

At 4:30 AM, Anonymous Nathan B. said...

I quite enjoyed this post, Jeffery. I also read of Salinger's passing and had the same reaction as your wife. Apparently, though, I am uneducated as I've never read his most famous work or wanted to. Thus, your poem spoke to my indifference also.

At 4:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kushibo, you're probably right. At the time that I read Catcher -- age 19 -- I was scarcely anymore a teenager.

At that point, I was deep into Dostoevsky and other Russian novelists, so Caulfield's alienation just didn't compare.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Nathan.

I'd probably encourage young people to read the novel just so they discover what the hoopla was about . . . and discover whether or not the hoopla was justified.

As Kushibo says, it likely "matter[s] what . . . [is] going on in your own life at the time."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:24 AM, Blogger John B said...

I wasn't very impressed with CATCHER either, when I read it as a teenager. I think I read it straight through in one sitting, so it didn't really have time to ferment in my brain. At any rate, I've heard some critics say that the novel "as Salinger really intended" (for whatever that's worth) is much more nuanced than it is typically read. Older and more discerning readers purportedly find a very different book than the simplistic, pretentious reading that makes it a rite of passage.

At 6:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, John. I've actually wondered if I should read it again. Perhaps it was all tongue in cheek -- and Salinger took me in!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:16 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

I read the novel because I heard so much about it. I was older than you. I think 23 or 24. I don't remember it now so it probably didn't impress me. I may be slightly older than those that book spoke too. I think I was sometime irritated, by what I thought was a fake WASP adolescent oppression during the 60's and 70's.

Salinger's death like Updike's was another reminder of my mortality. It is like when the last aunt or uncle dies and you are now the oldest generation.

At 10:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, the comments so far are running against Salinger, so I guess that he didn't speak for most of us.

As for mortality, I think about it a lot as the older generation dies and takes something of me with them when they go.

Also, I often find myself thinking, as I lie sleepless in bed, that "I probably won't accomplish that before I die" . . . the "that" differing from night to night, but there's always something to regret in advance.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:04 AM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...

"I guess that he didn't speak for most of us."

Most things don't speak for most of us as we are all of different sexes, ages, races, backgrounds, religions (or not), family sizes, city dwellers v. rural v. suburbs, etc.

Look at the highest rated shows on American TV right now. The number one show in the United States, “American Idol,” is watched by only 30 million people or a little less than 10% of the total population. The number 2 show, “NCIS,” is watched by around 20 million people or less than 7%. Even today’s best sellers aren’t read by that many people unless “Harry Potter” is predominately featured in the title. Unlike the 1950’s, everyone has their own individual TV (or more than one) and they aren’t always used to watch television thanks to the invention of the gaming system. Also, a little thing called the pc hadn’t been invented yet.

In today’s twittering world, J.D.’s book is pretty out-dated and nowhere near high-octane enough to capture the attention of those who still find pleasure in reading. Currently I’d go with “Rats Saw God” by Rob Thomas as the choice for being the defining book of today’s heavily debt-ridden generation thanks to the those fiscally obtuse baby boomers.

At 12:23 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, John, you're undoubtedly right. My own experience in disliking Catcher tends to confirm your remarks.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Jeff said...

Hi, Jeffery! Given that he spent the past 50 years in rural seclusion, I suspect Salinger would have found your elders in the Ozarks pretty charming. That said, I find it interesting that the New York Times obit refers to Salinger's depiction of an adolescent's "distrust of the adult world." I think it'd be more accurate for them to talk about "distrust of the segment of the adult world visible to the upper-middle-class, prep-school set of the '40s and '50s." I find the obit writer's over-generalization somewhat telling.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, hello, old timer. Haven't seen you for a while, but I don't get out much on the internet. Just cultivating my own blog garden. Not that I'm a recluse, of course.

I can see your point, and I in fact first encountered 'preppiness' via Salinger. It was so foreign to me that I had no context for understanding it or why Caulfield was rebelling.

But I'll be willing to rehabilitate Salinger -- or my own private version of the man -- if his safely locked away novels are masterpieces.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:56 AM, Anonymous Jeff said...

Oh, I haven't been commenting, but I have been checking in here. Verily, I am stealthy.

I don't think you're wrong to dislike The Catcher in the Rye, because its ideal audience was narrow and mass Internet extroversion has rendered the book largely obsolete. (The whole prep-school thing eluded me, too; I was too fascinated by the alien-ness of it to be disdainful of it.)

You may enjoy one or two of Salinger's tiny handful of short stories--but life is short, and there's already so much else to be read...

At 6:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeff, my site meter tells me that I get a lot of traffic, but that's a false positive, for most of it comes from Google searches that skip individuals across the surface of my blog like flat stones on a small pond.

My true readership is probably small, but I have no idea who they are, aside from the tiny few who comment.

Al Qaeda reads me, of course, but they never write.

You might have noticed my follow-up post on Salinger, a mea culpa sort of entry . . . partly motivated by your comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:47 AM, Blogger kushibo said...

Jeffery Hodges wrote:
Jeff, my site meter tells me that I get a lot of traffic, but that's a false positive, for most of it comes from Google searches that skip individuals across the surface of my blog like flat stones on a small pond.

How do you know they don't get their toes wet? Sitemeter should be able to tell you the average duration of visits. A lot of mine are from Google searches, but these are typically of around a minute or two.

At 7:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Most of the Google searches register a big fat zero.

The average would be pretty meaningless, like the average temperature in my hometown, a pleasant 68 degrees fahrenheit . . . over a hundred in summer, below zero in winter.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:42 AM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...


I usually pull up and open the blogs I want to read everynight right as I come through the front door and leave them open until I get around to them after I finish with my supper, take a shower, answer my e-mail, make some phone calls, and watch a couple hours of television. Sometimes, if I fall asleep before I read through them all, they will stay open all night; therefore, I am skewing some blog numbers by myself.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That would tend to skew things, but mainly on blogs with low traffic.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:04 AM, Blogger kushibo said...

Jeffery wrote:
That would tend to skew things, but mainly on blogs with low traffic.

Actually, I don't think it would effect things in that way, because Sitemeter has a way of "clicking off" a connection that remains open. I experimented with it a few times and I was not able to get a reading of longer than ten minutes (I think, I'm going by memory). If a blog has 480 hits and someone leaves a page open for eight hours (which is 480 minutes), then it would up the average an entire minute. It doesn't end up working that way, though I don't know how Sitemeter is measuring it exactly.

At 11:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That's odd. My sitemeter records much longer visits. My own computer had certainly logged up to as much as a couple of hours with sitemeter during long blog visits.

Jeffery Hodges

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