The elusive and beloved author of “The Catcher in the Rye”, “Franny and Zooey”, and “Nine Stories”, died Wednesday at his home in Cornish N.H., at the age of 91. The New York Times ran a detailed and fitting obituary.
Salinger is perhaps best known as the creator of one of the most caustic and endearing anti-heroes in all of literature, Holden Caulfield, though his meticulous depictions of the eccentric Glass family consumed both a novel, “Franny and Zooey”, and several stories. He was a veteran of both the Battle of the Bulge and the Normandy landings in the Second World War, a good friend of famed New Yorker magazine editor William Shawn, a husband to two wives, and a father to two children. He was also a writer whose work has had enormous cultural repercussions; an author who, with one book and one character, captured and distilled adolescence for generations of readers. In 1953, two years after the publication of the bestselling “Catcher”, he retreated from New York to New Hampshire, where he lived in seclusion for the rest of his life.
It’s not for me to sum up or expound Salinger’s talent and contributions to the literary world — nor, I think, would Salinger like it if I did. I have a feeling that he would despise the long-winded, grandly-gestured tributes dripping with high praise that will naturally (and rightfully) follow his passing. I can only speak of my reaction to his work, as someone who has adored both “Catcher” and “Franny and Zooey”, not only for their memorable characters, but for the style with which Salinger introduced them onto the page, giving them fresh, arresting voices of their own. Those stories have made me shriek with laughter — like the scene of Zooey Glass reprimanding his mother from behind a shower curtain — or fill with compassion; despite all his faults (or perhaps because of them), there were many times in reading “Catcher” that I wanted to hug Holden Caulfield.
There’s a post on The Guardian book blog that wonderfully sums up our dilemma about celebrating Salinger: with so little of his life in public, it’s hard to know just how to honor his death. Perhaps what he’d like best, and what we all ought to do, is to go back to his work: to read it again, and remember.
Somewhere on my desk at home is a folded sheet of paper with a quote from one of Salinger’s stories that I found long ago, something to keep in mind every time I sit down with the compulsion to write. I like to think of it, perhaps too grandly, as a sort of manifesto, or at the very least, some of the best advice about writing I’ve ever encountered. It’s perhaps the next best thing to calling him up on the phone whenever I feel like it:
“Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if you had known your time would be up when it was finished. . . I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before you ever sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down and shamelessly write the thing yourself. . . ”
— J.D. Salinger, from “Seymour: An Introduction”