Last week the author J.D. Salinger died at age 91. I hesitate to eulogize him for fear, as Salinger once told Elia Kazan when the latter asked for permission to produce a play version of Salinger’s masterpiece “The Catcher in the Rye,” that “Holden wouldn’t like it.”
But I hope and believe that Salinger is perhaps now in a place where he can enjoy the way his work delighted and inspired so many individuals. He no longer struggles with the burden of his fame.
Salinger’s masterpiece “The Catcher in the Rye,” is often characterized as an homage to youthful disenchantment and to adolescence more generally. But for me, the book and its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, transcend even those themes. It was a work of ultimate idealism, giving eloquent voice to the pain of a pure spirit in a world of matter.
As a teenage prep-school rebel, I of course identified with Holden Caulfield in the earthly sense: he was honest, irreverent, funny, perceptive, sensitive and real in the way that most kids are. As an adult who has done her best (for better or for worse), to stretch out my adolescence and retain my youthful spirit, I identify with Holden’s escape to Manhattan, his roaming of the city’s haunts, his enjoyment of its characters, and his cynical self-protection from all but his adored and adorable little sister, Phoebe. All my life I have enjoyed his recognition of the “phoniness” that at least partially permeates so many people’s lives. When Holden spoke of phoniness he meant so many things: cruelty, hypocrisy, status-consciousness at the expense of human feeling, excessive concern with others’ opinions and judgments, and blindness to what really counts: human relationships, treating others as one wishes to be treated, beauty, protection of goodness and decency, and the deeper realities of the human spirit.
It is tempting to lament that Salinger spent the last fifty years in self-imposed isolation in a cabin in Cornish, N.H., and stopped publishing in the 1960’s. But in an era of prodigious blogging (which I have dubbed “blogorrhea,” meaning lengthy, self-indulgent blogging done purely for the sake of author’s ego), and fame-seeking writers who care less about quality than slapping together something marketable, Salinger’s spare, deeply-imagined and deeply-felt works–most notably “Catcher”–shine brighter than ever. His life and death also cause me to reflect on whether all the compulsive “doing” in the world really does uplift it. Or whether the best a true artist can do is create one perfect masterpiece and leave the world alone.
So much that passes in the world for accomplishment, success, and high art is vanity and bull-#$%&. Salinger quit while he was ahead. He created something of beauty, and then he’d had enough of the world’s nonsense. He did his best to live life in his unique way.
He was no phony.
Rest in Peace.
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