Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Remembering JD Salinger - Catcher in the Rye author is a unifying and devisive figure

"There is a marvellous peace in not publishing.... Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."- J. D. Salinger to the New York Times, 1974

With the passing this week of the western world’s most famous recluse author, J. D. Salinger, people are falling all over themselves to put into a perspective the work of a man who hasn’t published since the June 19, 1965 issue of the New Yorker (Hapworth 16, 1924). I’ve kept my linking for this limited to the two papers I read over the weekend, the National Post and the Globe and Mail, which provide a nice cross-section of coverage.

Robert Fulford of the Post had a nice, balanced analysis of Salinger’s most famous work, 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye, in his article, JD Salinger: A generation’s silent hero.  By comparing and contrasting Catcher with another beloved, American story of disaffected youth, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, he illuminates strengths and weaknesses of the book.

"Both books have enormous charm and a fine sense of period. But Huck acts out a tormenting moral problem, a conflict between what society has taught him (slaves are the private property of their owner) and what he comes to believe (decency demands he help Jim go free). It's at once a personal dilemma and the gravest ethical issue of 19th-century American life. Holden Caulfield, on the other hand, worries about personal authenticity and expresses his dislike of the "phonies" he runs into. They are both troubled young fellows, but the troubles of Huck are universal, the troubles of Holden limited to a certain kind of American adolescent."
Conspiracy theories abound as to why Salinger fled the public eye so many years ago. And we’re about to see a torrent of them in the media.

In his Globe and Mail remembrance, Salinger gave us the gospel of Holden, author Andrew Pyper (Lost Girls, The Wildfire Circle, The Killing Season) calls Catcher’s protagonist Holden Caulfield “America’s Hamlet”.   And in Salinger’s final battle, writer Chris Wilson admits he loves Salinger “far too much to write about him with any perspective.”

In a clever angle on the story every journalist alive is weighing in on, Wilson decides to use “Seymour: An Introduction”, one of Salinger’s own stories, to eulogize his beloved author. But Wilson then admits to finding Salinger’s last story barely readable and finds much meaning in the experience. Wilson finds confirmation in his reaction in Steven Marcus’s 1963 New York Review of Books summary of the tale.

“Written in a prose so self-consciously arch and cloying as to be almost impenetrable, it circles and loops about itself and gets nowhere. Obsessed with the character and the suicide of Seymour, Salinger seems on the one hand in danger of being swallowed up by the myth he has created.”

One can almost see Wilson nodding sagely as he uncovered this loaded quote. He goes on to summarize Salinger’s final story starring Seymour Glass, Hapworth 16, 1924.
“As any devoted Salinger sleuth has discovered in the catacombs of some university library, he published a final story two years later in The New Yorker titled Hapworth 16, 1924, which takes the form of a letter from a seven-year-old Seymour Glass to his parents from summer camp. The story is grating, ponderous, and, I find, unreadable; I’ve never made it through more than 5,000 of the 30,000 words.

If we needed any more evidence that Buddy — or Salinger — was on the brink with Seymour, then Hapworth is it. If he has been writing for the past 40 years, I fear it was more of the same.”
A bit overwrought perhaps?

First of all, it takes little, if any sleuthing to know when Salinger’s last story was published. We are in the era of Google after all.

Secondly Wilson’s declaration of how unreadable the final story is nicely points out how divisive Salinger was and will continue to be. If Wilson, who so boldly professed himself madly in love with Salinger in the opening paragraph of his column, can’t get through the final stories, then they must ponderous indeed, right?

People love Salinger.

They also love to hate him.

Face it, judging JDS has been a nice, cottage industry for the literary-inclined for many, many years. And like the retort of a starter’s pistol, Salinger’s death has kicked that into overdrive. The Literati are eager to draw their personal line in the sand and pile on the praise or just pile on.

The National Post start the negative coverage with Mark Medley’s Not everyone loved J.D. Salinger, which reveals that novelist Bret Eaton Ellis (Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction, American Psycho and Lunar Park) twittered, “Yeah!! Thank God he's finally dead. I've been waiting for this day for-f--king-ever. Party tonight!!!" Not really surprising reaction I suppose, given Ellis’ delight in literary shock value.

Jay McInerney (Story of My Life, Brightness Falls, The Good Life) is quoted as telling ABC News that he doubts Salinger has written anything of value in his time out of the public eye.
"I think there's probably a lot in there, but I'm not sure if it's necessarily what we hope it is," McInerney told the network on Thursday when asked about the contents of Salinger's legendary safe, where it's alleged he's kept his unpublished work. "Hapworth was not a traditional or terribly satisfying work of fiction. It was an insane epistolary monologue, virtually shapeless and formless. I have a feeling that his later work is in that vein."
I don’t blame McInerney for feeling less than kind to Salinger. His novel Bright Lights, Big City was compared to Catcher in the Rye when it came out, and not always favorably.

Truth is, a simple search of JD Salinger right now will likely uncover an outpouring of “What Salinger/Catcher in the Rye meant to me” postings on blogs, in articles and online forums. And beyond that you will find all sorts of curmudgeons out to diss the author.

Me?   I think the people are overreacting on both sides.

Fans and foes alike pore their own desires, dreams and angst into a vacuum and create Salinger in the image they desire. Their dismissal of his hackery or elevation of his status to near Godhood are often far greater barometers of their own emotional state and personal demons than of his.

To assume Salinger was unable to grow as a writer over the course of forty or more years and was stuck in his 1965 writing style and mode is utter lunacy.

But neither is it sensible to assume that every piece of personal prose tucked away in his famous vault and filing cabinets is likely to be golden.

But let's face it… the published stories that are out in the world are proof enough that the man had prodigous writing talent. And if stepping away from the pressure of writing allowed him more creative freedom I can’t magine he wouldn’t improve as he went along. He also seems critical enough of his own work that I suspect -- especially over the course of forty-plus years -- he made a pretty fair editor for himself.  And let's face it, people wouldn't be this obsessed if they weren't affected by his work.  Such was Salinger's gift of intimacy in his writing that everyone felt they knew him through his writing.  Do a few literary misteps mitigate that talent?

My favourite remembrance of Salinger so far comes from Quebec’s Eve Shea, who wrote Goodbye, Uncle Jerry for Saturday’s Globe and Mail. It focuses not on his writing (which is all most of us have to judge him), but rather on her personal relationship with the man himself. Eve writes of being introduced to Salinger as a girl of thirteen by hr older sister and becoming fast friends and sometime pen pals.
“Jerry was reluctant to talk about his work but did tell us that he wrote every day, from early morning until lunch, and he showed us where he wrote, in a room overlooking his wooded property. We saw the typewriter that he worked on, the one that made the holes for periods in the letters that he sent me, as well as the two closet-sized fireproof safes that stored his writing. When I asked, “How is the writing going?” he said, “Oh, Evie! You don't ever ask a writer how the writing is going.”

“…Peter asked if he ever re-read his books. He told us that occasionally he pulled them off the shelf to make sure that everyone was all right.”
I think Salinger’s response to Eve asking if her boyfriend’s writer brother could correspond with him may sum up Salinger quite. While giving her an unequivocal ‘No’, Salinger is at once extremely polite, direct and self-effacing.
“When I wrote asking if it would be all right if Peter's brother Joe wrote to him, knowing what his answer was likely to be, he wrote back, “I'll pass up, if you don't mind, any personal exchanges with the young writer you mentioned. No loss for him. I can't think of anything good that ever comes of serious writers – that is, writers not just out for the usual big splash – knowing each other personally, and almost invariably harm, subtle or otherwise, comes of it. If this young guy matters to you, and if you sense that he wants to do some real work, on his own terms, not necessarily or even likely the world's, tell him to stay clear of everybody in the profession or on the fringes of it. My sentiments, anyway. Not, I'm aware, not altogether widely approved or thought salutary.”
Eve’s personal portrait of her “Uncle Jerry” reveals an intensely shy, polite man who loved to write and enjoyed his privacy.

No conspiracies.

Just a man living a quiet life and a fiercely independent artist who needed the smallest audience of all… himself.

Of course, the flip side to this placid view can be found in a post by journalista and author Jeet Heer, who has some interesting thoughts on Salinger by way of his daughter Margaret's memoirs.  Read Salinger & family at Heer's Sanseverything blog.

Live the adventure.