Rarely do authors make front page news. Rarer still are they a featured story on Yahoo! or CNN or any of the other mass media outlets you may frequent. And if they do it is usually for one of two things: either their novel is to be adapted into a Howard/Eastwood/insert-last-name-of-famous-director-here movie, or they died. Last week it was for the latter of the two. J.D. Salinger, who penned the grade-school requisite The Catcher in the Rye, died of natural causes at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire on January 27. He was 91.
There aren’t too many authors, though, who could drum up such a reaction to their deaths as Salinger could. His was splattered all over the internet and TV, and even if you didn’t know who he was in life, it was next to impossible not to become aware after last week. The buzz was a product mainly of how he lived his life – in self-imposed exile – and, perhaps either oddly or obviously, how little he actually wrote but how widely read he was.
He started off in The New Yorker shortly after World War II, and gained fame for his story “A Perfect Day for a Bananafish,” about a post-war couple vacationing in Florida, with its provocative ending: “Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.” Such a story had scarcely ever been read in the glossy pages of that mainstream periodical, and Salinger continued to publish stories there that dealt largely with the trauma of post-war life, the idealization of childhood, and the loss of innocence. The stories, presciently crafted, portended a shift in American letters to the work of the Beats in the 1950s, which had much to do with the fractured individual existing within the seemingly pristine milieu of the Eisenhower years.
But it was Salinger’s only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, and its anti-hero, Holden Caulfield, that became the archetype of teen angst and alienation in the adult world of “phonies.” Caulfield was the original teen rebel and icon. But he was not simply a rebel for rebellion’s sake. His soul quaked with what he saw occurring in society: a growing prurience and depravity – displayed by everyone from his older brother to his former teachers – that threatened the delicate fabric of youth, personified by his younger sister, Phoebe. He is trapped there in that waning field of rye trying desperately to catch and hold onto an innocence that has already disintegrated.
Perhaps no book in American history has spawned as much controversy as Catcher has, save religious texts. Certainly no book in the 20th century has. It has been on banned book lists since the early 1960s, but also has been the most taught text in English classes. Not one but two notable gunmen, Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon and John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, owned copies of Catcher. What was unique about the book was the contemporary fame it had. No book of serious fiction has reached that level since.
And no author has eluded the public while still remaining a provocative figure quite like J.D. Salinger. His last published story was in 1965, and he lived hermetically in his New Hampshire cottage, eschewing, however passive-aggressively, notoriety. Thus he was famous for not wanting to be famous – an interesting twist on the fame paradigm we see in pop culture today, where everyone is famous for wanting desperately to be famous no matter the cost. He was alluded to in the film Field of Dreams, as Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, drove from Iowa to Boston to bring the reclusive writer, Terrance Mann, played by James Earl Jones, back to his homemade baseball field where childhood dreams come true and innocence is restored. He’s been the subject of biographies, and has by and large battled legally with anyone who has attempted to publish material on him. It has been through these portrayals of him as the craggy hermit that have kept him just outside of the limelight.
Salinger’s life and death, therefore, touch on many issues of literature’s place in contemporary society. He and perhaps Thomas Pynchon, himself a reclusive author, may just be the last bastion of literary heroes from an era when a new book was anticipated and talked about the same way a movie was. When authors had a sort of ethereal presence in society, a place of near exaltation, and were sought after and, in their own way, revered.
What we talk about when we talk about writers today is the bestseller list. Not to knock the bestsellers, but many of the writers there are not “writers” at all, in the classic sense of the word. They’re either written by public figures (i.e. the Sarah Palins, Glenn Becks, or Al Frankens) or written about public figures. Or else they’re some series that has caught on and made a dent with movies or TV shows (i.e. your Twilights and True Bloods) - although a few have toed the writerly line, like the Harry Potter series and the splashes made by the Clancys and Grishams and Dan Browns. But it is just this side of never that we, societally speaking, talk about a book that deals with our own humanity here and now. And that’s a shame. There are many authors out there who still write about it, but the tragedy of it is that our society may not hear about them until they’re dead and buried. And we just may have already lost our greatest in 2008 with the death of David Foster Wallace.
Here’s hoping J.D. Salinger’s life, though admittedly weird and quirky, and death is a reminder to us all that important art does not have to created generations before our own. That if our cultural conversations can include such insipid stuff as Brangelina’s kids and the “Pants on the Ground” song, maybe we could find writers who speak to our hearts and make us look at ourselves in new ways. Here’s hoping that J.D. Salinger is not the last writer American society gives a damn about, and that a good writer’s life my be as well known as his death.