In This World But Not Of It

I can’t let too much time pass before commenting on the death of J. D. Salinger. I first read Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school. Holden Caulfield spoke to me and for me and he spoke the way I did then or wanted to.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and why my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me and all the David Copperfied kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

He said things I didn’t know I wanted to stay and didn’t know how to either. He said it clearly and brilliantly. I haven’t read too many other books that I remember in this way. Before I read Catcher in the Rye, I didn’t really know what “phony” meant but afterwards I saw it everywhere and now I had a word for it. And I still see it everywhere. As Charles McGrath put it in his brilliant obituary in the Times, Catcher in the Rye, struck a nerve in conveying a “sympathetic understanding of adolescence and its fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world…”

And then I began reading Salinger’s short stores in the New Yorker—A Perfect Day for Bananafish, For Esme with Love and Squalor, Franny, and then Zooey, and Seymour. And there were more too. We couldn’t wait for the next one and it was the first thing we looked for in each new issue. I began saving those issues and for many years stashed them away in a separate box. Someone must have thrown them out one day, for they are gone now, another priceless treasure out the door.

And then, as is widely known, Salinger retreated from the public glare to a remote town in New Hampshire and stopped publishing altogether, although he was often out and about and active in the community He said, “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” Here he speaks for me once again.

A great many writers have written eloquently of what Salinger meant to them. A. M. Homes said, “I feel as though my father has died.” David Eggers commented, “His is still my favorite dialogue, the dialogue that rings truest, that’s at once very naturalistic and musical; it’s really remarkable how difficult it is to do what he does between quotation marks.”

Lillian Ross says, “His writing was his and his alone, and his way of life was only what he chose to follow. …The trouble with all of us, he believed, is that when we were young we never knew anybody who could or would tell us any of the penalties of making it in the world on the usual terms: “I don’t mean just the pretty obvious penalties, I mean the ones that are just about unnoticeable and that do really lasting damage, the kind the world doesn’t even think of as damage.”

Finally, in a glowing tribute Adam Gopnik writes, “And so his death throws us back from the myth to the magical world of his writing as it really is, with its matchless comedy, its ear for American speech, its contagious ardor and incomparable charm. Salinger’s voice—which illuminated and enlivened these pages for two decades—remade American writing in the fifties and sixties in a way that no one had since Hemingway.”

It is said that Salinger continue to write throughout the years he lived in New Hampshire which has apparently been preserved in many notebooks and there is some speculation that a couple of novels have been locked away in a local bank vault. Perhaps we will one day come to see some of these posthumous works. Regardless, they will do nothing to diminish the remarkable experience of reading Catcher in the Rye and those nine short stories

God, how I still love private readers,” he wrote. “It’s what we all used to be.”

Salinger said, “…he was in this world but not of it.” In commenting on Janet Malcolm’s essay on Salinger in the New York Review of Books, McGrath concludes, “That the Glasses (and by implication, their creator) were not at home in the world was the whole point, which said as much about the world as about the kind of people who failed to get along there.”