Friday, January 29, 2010

In Memoriam: J.D. Salinger

    GettyImages_3380455_web.jpgWhen J.D. Salinger died of natural causes today, at the age of 91, he left a seminal body of fiction—it would not be hyperbole to call him the most influential American writer of the last century. The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, and Holden Caulfield has been a teenager ever since, an icon and antihero for about 65 million people. Ten years later, Salinger published Franny and Zooey to great acclaim; up until 1965, Salinger contributed a steady stream of short stories to The New Yorker, including cult favorites “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Hapworth 16, 1924.”
     Despite his fame and success with The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, Salinger led a hermetic life in New Hampshire, rarely appearing in public. Upon his death, he had not published anything new since 1965, and his last interview was 30 years ago.

    In the midst of the writing, he romanced Eugene O’Neill’s daughter; married a German while on a Denazification tour after World War II; divorced her; and married Claire Douglas in 1955. He and Claire had a son, Matthew, and a daughter, Margaret, but he divorced Claire in 1967, and took up with Joyce Maynard, then a young editor forSeventeen. Their relationship ended when he felt he was too old for more children (he was 53). Salinger’s relationships with women, and his writing, continued, but neither would ever be something official again.
    Salinger made merry use of the 1950s psychology boom—nervous breakdowns, anxiety, spiritual introspection, and sexual confusion were among his typical neuro-motifs. But his funny (even if they didn’t find themselves to be so) characters, unified in their acute sense of isolation, were exactly why the whole world became deeply attached to so much of Salinger’s work. As only the very best writing can do, his accessed some common internal state. Salinger’s own aura has always been somewhat ethereal, inspiring the character Terrence McMann in the 1989 film Field of Dreams.

    The Catcher in the Rye has developed a life of its own over the past 59 years. John Lennon’s murderer, Mark David Chapman, had a copy of the book with him at the Dakota. Chapman claimed in the police car, “I am the catcher in the rye.” The title of the book is based on a Robert Burns poem, “Comin Thro the Rye,” a reflection on death, sex, and existential helplessness, which Salinger’s Holden mangles in his interpretation. But perhaps that misunderstood-ness and alone-ness are what Chapman was grasping for, and perhaps they’re also what every person who’s read and loved The Catcher in the Rye can identify with.

    This summer, when a Swedish writer calling himself “J.D. California” tried to cash in on Caulfield with a parody called 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, Salinger took a brief respite from his seclusion to file a lawsuit. This new book, Salinger and his agent claimed, was an infringement on Salinger’s copyright. 

    It’s not inconceivable that with Salinger’s death there will be some magnificent tomb-raiding of previously unpublished material; he was writing all this time, after all. And surely some more J.D. Californias will crop up, unencumbered. He never sold the film rights to The Catcher in the Rye in his lifetime, but now it may be time for a particular young, smart director who’s fluent in Salinger’s tics to do it. Franny and Zooey may have already been done. Some people suggest that the eccentric, large, intellectual Glass family is the basis for Wes Anderson’s 2001 film, The Royal Tennenbaums. Anderson told us today, “For me, it was always very simple when it came to Salinger: this was who I wanted to be.”

    David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, released the following statement this afternoon: “Everyone who works here and writes here at The New Yorker, even now, decades after his silence began, does so with a keen awareness of J.D. Salinger's voice. In fact, he is so widely read in America, and read with such intensity, that it's hard to think of any reader, young and old, who does not carry around the voices of Holden Caulfield or Glass family members.”

    When The New Yorker editor William Maxwell asked Salinger who his influences were in a 1951 interview for Book of the Month Club News, Salinger responded: “I love Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Proust, O'Casey, Rilke, Lorca, Keats, Rimbaud, Burns, E. Bronte, Jane Austen, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge. I won't name any living writers. I don't think it's right.”

    We all love J.D. Salinger.

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