A Man’s Guide to One of the Great Writers
In America, everyone’s an outsider, a rebel, an underdog.
It doesn’t matter how rich or famous you are—billionaire businessmen and the homeless, celebrities and middle-class mediocrities alike all buy into this. Whatever triumphs or successes you’ve experienced have been in spite of—not because of—a dumb, heartless, hypocritical society.
Where the hell did the world’s richest, most powerful country get all this angst from?
Hard to say, but the most significant era for the growth of this kind of mentality was not the 1960s, but the decade that came before it. There were the Beats, of course, but then there were other artists who beat them to the punch.
Like J.D. Salinger.
A Life in Brief
Let’s start at the end.
For the last hefty chunk of his life, J.D. Salinger lived in seclusion in rural New Hampshire. He died in 2010, but his last published work was in 1965. Who knows how the hell he spent all his time—there may be piles of unpublished manuscripts, or there may be nothing.
For the writer of such ebullient, chatty stories, it’s a bit strange that Salinger would become the penultimate recluse. After finding fame in the early 1950s with The Catcher in the Rye, I guess he got sick of the stupid questions and people hounding him about his personal life.
His psyche may have been harboring a bit of ingrown hypersensitive bitterness towards the world, as well—something you can get a sense of in Holden Caulfield’s railing against “phonies” in The Catcher in the Rye and the misunderstood geniusness of Seymour in his Glass Family stories.
But Salinger’s detachment from the world only served to make him even more fascinating. The thing that recluses (at least famous ones) fail to realize is that detachment and seclusion make you all the more alluring. Curiosity in humans is like blood lust in predators—it only increases when something flees.
Salinger’s bristly hypersensitivity could’ve also sprung from experience. He was a World War II vet. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day, saw the concentration camps (he reportedly once told his daughter, “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live.”), and suffered a war-related nervous breakdown.
He grew up on the Upper West and East Sides of Manhattan and was a so-so student. His family was Jewish, but was involved in the ham trade. He was born on January 1st, 1919.
Why You Should Read Him
America may have revolted from England in 1776, but it took a long time to totally cut the cord.
American literature is a case in point. For many years, even the great American authors like Hawthorne and Poe and Melville had a slightly stuffy, florid Englishness about them. They may have produced some truly great stories, but to say that they really captured the American Voice would be a stretch.
It wasn’t until Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the late 19th century that the American Voice had truly been given utterance. But Twain thought he was just writing a rather low-brow sequel to Tom Sawyer, and the book was received lukewarmly, and it seemed the spirit of the book failed to stick.
It wasn’t until The Great Gatsby that something predominantly American in tone and theme was evident, but even The Great Gatsby deals with the mostly Europe-imitating upper-class.
And then The Catcher in the Rye came around. What a breath of fresh air the beginning of the book must have seemed to readers in 1951:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them… I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.
You can not only see the irreverence shown toward the English literary tradition in the above passage with the dig at Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, but you can also hear the unmistakable offhand patter of the archetypal disaffected American youth, whom we all still imitate. We hint at personal tragedy, yet downplay it with humor. We buck against tradition, but we still long for community. And we assume an ironic, bemused stance toward our own lives.
The Catcher in the Rye, of course. Didn’t want to start with that one because it’s the obvious one of his to recommend, but it’s his best and most important book.
It centers around Holden Caulfield—the ultimate intelligent yet troubled teenager. It follows him as he leaves his boarding school and wanders around New York City, encountering strange strangers, old friends and teachers, prostitutes and pimps.
Despite being highly modern in sensibility and tone, the book adheres to two time-tested genres in fiction: the picaresque novel and the bildungsroman. It’s picaresque in that it follows a slightly scoundrely yet likeable character’s adventures in a corrupt society, and it’s a bildungsroman in that it’s a coming-of-age story. It’s also yet another re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey—New York in this case subbing for the Mediterranean and Odysseus’s search for his homeland replaced by Holden’s search for who knows what.
I know when I first read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, the character of Holden Caulfield was immediately recognizable, and his distaste for phoniness was all-too-understandable, and his quirks of insecurity and secretiveness very familiar:
I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible. So when I told old Spencer I had to go to the gym to get my equipment and stuff, that was a sheer lie. I don’t even keep my goddamn equipment in the gym.
His world (except for maybe the influence of TV) wasn’t all that different than the world I was growing up in, so his struggles seemed far from alien to me.
But I don’t know how much The Catcher in the Rye appeals to kids these days. The world of the contemporary American teenager seems so hyper-driven by constant media blitzing and commercialism and technology. Holden’s chip-on-the-shoulder individualism, hatred of phoniness, and aimless wandering and daydreaming might seem foreign to today’s teen. Hope I’m wrong.
After That, You Should Read…
I’m going to have to say the long short story Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, for two reasons: it’s a nice introduction to the Glass Family (the subject of many of Salinger’s later stories), and it’s a good example of a realistic, real-time story entertainingly told, centering around a character we never see.
The character we never see is Seymour Glass, the elder brother of Buddy Glass, who narrates the story. Seymour leaves his fiancée waiting at the altar, and Buddy is stuck with some of the angry wedding guests. It’s comical, subtle, and for as much as Salinger hated movies, very movie-like.
The Glass family, a family of vivacious, verbose child prodigies, looms large in much of Salinger’s fiction, The Catcher in the Rye being the exception. A show business family, they grew up all starring on a radio program called “It’s a Wise Child,” a quiz show slash chat show centering around precocious kids. Stories like Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Seymour: An Introduction, and Franny and Zooey follow their later lives and map out their neuroses, heartbreaks, and epiphanies. They’re no doubt the prototype for the families in Wes Anderson’s films.
So if you like Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and you find the Glasses intriguing and charming, then you can continue reading Salinger’s other work. Personally, they bug the hell out of me.