J. D. Salinger: writing in the shadows

By Jason Malikow
Nov. 17, 2004

J. D. Salinger's dedication at the head of “Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction” looks for “an amateur reader still left in the world – or anybody who just reads and runs – I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to” share the dedication with Salinger's family. If you are such a reader of Salinger today, when information saturation demands strong opinion on everything from global politics to the new designer at Target, I intend to corrupt you with this essay. Not because I want to strip you of Salinger's dedication, but because “reading and running” turns away from the author of whatever you have just read. Literature demands reflection, engagement, decision and action. Failing to take action is a disservice to the text and the author. This disservice turns on what we think of as valuable, and what we think of as quality. Good literature is not disposable literature, and disposable literature is not good. J. D. Salinger writes good literature.

At least, we think Salinger is still writing, even though he hasn't published anything since 1963. And we're pretty sure he's writing literature and not screenplays or cheesecake recipes or reviews of the latest Tom Waits record – though he may be doing just that. What we've got – all we've got, really – is a novel and a couple of collections of assorted stories, long and short. Four slim volumes, all with that plain white cover that gets smudged with ink from your fingertips. There are ancillary items, of course. The occasional lawsuit, filed to protect Salinger's name and copyright. Books written about him, sometimes scandalous, sometimes tame. How are we supposed to call this exercise in literary minimalism a significant body of work? How can we say that Salinger writes great literature, that he is relevant and necessary and important?

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Jerome David Salinger was born in New York in 1919. By all accounts he was a mediocre, inattentive student. He served in the U.S. Army in World War II, most notably from D-Day through the liberation of Paris. Upon his discharge from the army, Salinger returned to New York and wrote fiction, publishing almost exclusively in The New Yorker, though his work also appeared in Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. “The Catcher in the Rye,” published in 1951, was a quick success, and Salinger became the focus of a great deal of media and fan attention. This attention was not what Salinger was interested in; rather, it upset him to the point where he left New York in 1953 for Cornish, N.H. For many readers, this is where the myth of J. D. Salinger begins.

Following this move, Salinger isolated himself more and more from the literary and public worlds, breaking his silence on rare occasions to decry the unauthorized publication of some of his stories or letters, or to file lawsuits against those who would otherwise freely trade in on his name and reputation. These reappearances, which some suggest are calculated to keep Salinger’s name in popular circulation, are unpredictable, often defensive, and reveal little more than a reclusive author who continues to work – not for his audience, but for himself. Zooey Glass, speaking to his sister Franny in 1961's “Franny and Zooey,” tells her that “an artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's.” This independence, so often recognized as the cornerstone of the mythologized “American persona,” is the heart of all Salinger's work. It is also the key to the man himself.

Salinger’s work is driven by his characters, who share similar characteristics and traits. They rarely appear happy, or even satisfied with or in the present, but are instead always searching for something. Franny Glass reflects on what she has experienced with a view to a clean, uncomplicated future, one that may be distilled to a single, automatic response: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Characters strive for the simple and the peaceful, the calm, ordered procession of events and days. Like William Faulkner’s characters, Salinger’s have strong, distinct voices which reflect their own style and mannerisms. And like Faulkner’s, Salinger’s characters map well onto people his readers might encounter at any point in their lives.

Salinger creates characters who feed his reader’s hunger for a slower pace of life, a more careful introspection, and an honest effort to establish meaningful connections. His stories, set in the present day of their creation, now appeal to a nostalgic desire. Yet the Caulfield and Glass families were no representations of Americana, no subjects of a Norman Rockwell painting. Rather, these characters displayed all of the personal weaknesses and insecurities that were much hidden in the early postwar period. Foregrounding those neuroses and incompatibilities, Salinger imbued his characters with a startling honesty, from Holden Caulfield’s admission that he doesn’t want to do much of anything, to Buddy Glass, writing to Zooey, apologizing for his own introspective and professional turn away from his family. This is powerful writing, raw writing. It does not sugar coat, happily spin, or otherwise shortchange the characters or the reader. The results are stories willing to put a sometimes uncomfortable pressure on their characters, in the hope not that the reader will connect with the character, but that the character will connect with his world.

* * *

Leslie Fiedler, in “The Novel and America,” suggests that “in a compulsive way, [the American novelist] returns to a limited world of experience, usually associated with his childhood, writing the same book over and over again until he lapses into silence or self-parody.” It is important to note here that the silence Fiedler refers to is one of a permanent lack of output, a never-ending bout of writer's block, which Salinger tells us he does not suffer from. “'I love to write and I assure you I write regularly,'” he stated in an interview with the Boston Globe in 1980. And while his individual stories might meet with critical success or failure, the overall quality of Salinger's body of work is quite high, and copies of his books about childhood in mid-Twentieth century America continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies each year.

Quality anything – be it a piece of music, a film or a story – begins with a quality idea. Upon that foundational idea a great work is built. Make no mistake about it – J. D. Salinger's stories are all about ideas. They are not, however, “novels of ideas” in the way that one thinks of Proust or Dostoevsky as writers of epic meditations on life and death, love and hatred, violence and peace. Instead, Salinger's novels belong to a different, and thoroughly American, literary tradition. Put his books on your shelf next to Poe and Hemingway. What do they hold in common? A single idea, often quite small and personal, a question or a problem or a detail that just doesn't fit drives each author's characters further into themselves.

J. D. Salinger's oeuvre is quite small when compared with that of his contemporaries. Yet his work remains in circulation, a significant achievement. Undoubtedly a part of the draw for some readers is the chance to identify with infrequently written characters who share their attitudes and concerns. For, while other authors may have written about wayward teenage boys on the run, Holden Caulfield is the character type par excellence. So too with any of the Glass children, those deeply read and sensitive humanists so popular among liberal arts students. All of Salinger's characters have their neuroses, their obsessions and their desires to move beyond the point of contention and enter into a life in which they are free – to be left alone, to be comfortable with themselves and their surroundings, to do whatever they feel like doing. And who wouldn't want that?

Most importantly, however, is that Salinger has created strong, enduring characters who appeal to generation after generation of readers. These readers may be looking for a strongly American experience, they may be looking for an escape. But like the characters they follow, they are looking for something. Whether the characters appeal to our sense of place or lack of it, our relationships with our families and friends, or our own personal frustrations and hopes, Salinger's characters capture our imaginations and live within us. Their ideas become our ideas, however fleetingly, and we run with them. And that is the hallmark of good literature. J. D. Salinger writes good literature.

Jason A. Malikow holds degrees in English literature from Syracuse University and the University at Buffalo. His latest project, “The Economics of Violence in the Fiction of Dennis Cooper and Bret Easton Ellis,” was published in September 2004. He proudly lives in New York State.

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