By now you’ve certainly heard of the passing of J.D. Salinger. I gasped when I read it, and then paused to wonder why I was gasping at something that wasn’t really a surprise. After all, as we know, Salinger was quite old and quite reclusive, and except for an occasionally salacious detail that escaped from the cauldron of mythology surrounding him, it’s not like we had enough of Salinger to miss him anymore. And yet, there was that instant feeling that some thing had happened, that some member of American literary royalty had passed on, and that was worth gasping for.
I recall only a feeling of unease when I think of The Catcher in the Rye, which I read at the appointed time (tenth grade) and was then assigned to write a paper in this fancy style called satire, which I had no idea what to do with. So I wrote the paper, attaining something that approximated satire (at least my teacher was satisfied). I accepted without much question that The Catcher in the Rye deserves its appointed place in the pantheon of U.S. literature. I read the rest of his books, because my grandmother kept the old copies that belonged to my mom when she was a teen. None of them really made an impression on me. And I don’t really know why.
In looking about to see how Salinger was being remembered, it seemed appropriate that over at The New Yorker, they are showcasing Louis Menand’s essay, “Holden at Fifty: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and What It Spawned,” written in 2001:
The world is sad, Oscar Wilde said, because a puppet was once melancholy. He was referring to Hamlet, a character he thought had taught the world a new kind of unhappiness—the unhappiness of eternal disappointment in life as it is, Weltschmerz. Whether Shakespeare invented it or not, it has proved to be one of the most addictive of literary emotions. Readers consume volumes of it, and then ask to meet the author. It has also proved to be one of the most enduring of literary emotions, since life manages to come up short pretty reliably. Each generation feels disappointed in its own way, though, and seems to require its own literature of disaffection. For many Americans who grew up in the nineteen-fifties, “The Catcher in the Rye” is the purest extract of that mood. Holden Caulfield is their sorrow king. Americans who grew up in later decades still read Salinger’s novel, but they have their own versions of his story, with different flavors of Weltschmerz—”Catcher in the Rye” rewrites, a literary genre all its own.
You can also read some of Salinger’s works there (subscription required to read beyond the abstracts).
When I talked a bit with Mister MRP, an English teacher who yes, does subject his students to readings of The Catcher in the Rye, what we talked about was this: is his passing a loss to American letters or just the passing of an old guy who lived in New Hampshire? I don’t mean to disrespect Salinger’s memory with this question, and I’d really be interested to hear how folks are reflecting on Salinger and what he meant to you.
Update, January 29: Mister MRP reminds me that a few years back, I picked up The Catcher in the Rye for a re-read. I seem to remember something now about my thesis at the time, which was that the story was really about Holden Caulfield having been sexually abused. So there was that.