Sunday, 31 January 2010

J. D. Salinger January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010

JD Salinger: from boy of war, to modern man of lettersHis experiences at Utah Beach on D-Day lived with him forever as he and his contemporaries transformed postwar American literature

Robert McCrum
The Observer
Sunday 31 January 2010

Several years ago, here at the Observer, we described JD Salinger as a writer who "seems to understand children as no English-speaking writer has done since Lewis Carroll", which sounds odd until you consider his career as a man, a writer, a literary icon and finally a celebrated, rather dotty recluse, breakfasting on frozen peas and drinking his own urine.

The first surprise about his passing must be his great age. Ninety-one! Here's someone, born on New Year's Day, 1919, who takes us back to the year Woodrow Wilson negotiated the postwar treaty that has, arguably, tormented the peace of the world ever since. Salinger's departure means that his nearest surviving contemporaries, the last of the Mohicans, are the youthful figures of Philip Roth (76) and Gore Vidal (84).

Much has been made of Salinger's New York childhood and the stories he wrote (and later disowned) before the outbreak of the second world war, especially "Slight Rebellion off Madison", a Manhattan story about a bolshy teenager named Holden Caulfield with "prewar" jitters, published just after Pearl Harbor in 1941. But it was Salinger's own war that seems to have perpetuated his adolescence, trapping him in the mind and spirit of a disaffected teen and subsequently sponsoring a deep yearning for solitude.

He was drafted into the army in 1942, along with millions of young American boys, saw combat at Utah Beach on D-day and also fought in the battle of the bulge. In Wartime, the distinguished critic, and veteran, Paul Fussell describes how young Americans who survived this brutal stage of the war became rapidly unfit for frontline service in a matter of weeks.

Salinger certainly suffered "battle fatigue", possibly a breakdown, having been one of the first to enter a liberated concentration camp. He told his daughter: "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live." Holden Caulfield puts it in a slightly different way: "I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war, I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll swear to God I will." Several of the stories in For Esmé – with Love and Squalor draw on Salinger's wartime experiences.

I remember Norman Mailer, Salinger's junior by four years, and also a veteran, telling me shortly before he died that, for his generation of writers, literature became the great postwar project. America had come through, and triumphed, in a life-and-death struggle with a profound historical evil and now the republic could be cleansed and renewed through American letters. This, said Mailer, was the impulse behind The Naked and the Dead, the youthful novels of Gore Vidal, the launch of the Paris Review, and of course the immediate postwar fiction of JD Salinger whose career really took off with "A Perfect Day for Bananafish", first published in the New Yorker in 1948.

That was a turning point. "Bananafish" was the first of the stories to feature the Glass family, two retired vaudeville performers and their seven precocious children: Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt, Waker, Zooey and Franny. Salinger was not yet 30, but the local acclaim of New York critics was translating into a buzz around his name that would soon explode into a cacophony.

Now the creative and financial security afforded by the New Yorker encouraged Salinger to embark on the novel he had been incubating since 1940 and with which his name will be forever associated, the story of one boy's adventures in New York City, during a few days following his expulsion from an elite Pennsylvania boarding school. Salinger's celebrated first line echoed the author's angry, distracted, and solitary nature: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know etc" and it precisely recalls Huck Finn's equally famous: "You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of…"

That nails The Catcher in the Rye as a classic American boys' book, by Twain, so to speak, out of Fitzgerald, whom Salinger admired, and Hemingway, whom he had met as a GI in France. As a boys' book it gets constantly rewritten, which is part of its hypnotic grip on the American imagination. Louis Menand, for example, says it is "a literary genre all its own". Among its "rewrites" he identifies Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963), Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (1984) and Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). Here, in Britain, the grumpy teens who stomp through the novels of Melvin Burgess and Jacqueline Wilson must also owe a debt, however remote, to Salinger.

Like Salinger, Holden Caulfield is obsessed with "the phoneys" of adult society and is questing in a cynical, discontented way in search of emotional honesty in a world of troubling privilege and comfort. In archetypal terms, he is the classic fish out of water. As an odd fish, Holden is acutely alert to what Joyce Carol Oates calls "the moral rootlessness of contemporary American materialism", which is probably why he has remained such an evergreen character. But he also revels – and this is also part of his appeal – in the wonderful angst that the American pursuit of happiness engenders. "Reading Catcher," says the New York Times, "used to be an essential rite of passage."

Back in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye, which had been turned down by Harcourt Brace, struck an immediate chord with its readers, was reprinted eight times within two months of publication and was a New York Times bestseller for 30 weeks. Current newspaper estimates put the novel's sales at about 60m worldwide. It became the bible for the 60s generation of American schoolkids, the indispensable manual to brooding adolescence. Like Huckleberry Finn, it was censored, denounced, idolised and mythologised. Holden was compared to Billy Budd, Natty Bumppo, and Melville's Ishmael. Whatever the models and influences, the troubled life of Salinger's protagonist became tragically mirrored in the teenage traumas of some readers.

In 1980, Mark David Chapman was clutching a battered copy of Catcher in the Rye when he shot John Lennon. By then, Salinger had become "the Garbo of letters", living a fiercely defended private life in rural New Hampshire, a town named Cornish. To some, he seemed to be fulfilling Holden's desire to build himself "a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life" away from "any goddam stupid conversation with anybody".

As long ago as 1961, on the cover of his masterpiece Franny and Zooey, he had written: "It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years." Thereafter, for at least five decades, he dedicated himself to being invisible. His agent was told to burn the fan mail. Newspapers who tried to snatch a photo of the old man got short shrift. He was said to be working on a masterpiece, but no one had seen a line of it.

Salinger's last published work, "Hapworth 16, 1924", appeared in the New Yorker in 1965. From then on, it was the academics who became the bane of his life. There were moments of sanity. In 1974, Philip Roth wrote: "The response of college students to the work of JD Salinger indicates that he, more than anyone else, has not turned his back on the times, but instead has managed to put his finger on whatever struggle of significance is going on today between self and culture."

Salinger certainly kept a beady eye on the commentators. In 1986 he used extreme legal sanctions to prevent the distinguished British poet and critic, Ian Hamilton, from publishing In Search of JD Salinger. In 1999, a former girlfriend, Joyce Maynard, published a memoir of her relationship with the hermit of Cornish, At Home in the World. There was an ephemeral brouhaha, some tittering about the old boy's foibles (acupuncture; hours in an orgone box; an obsession with Vedanta Hinduism) and then silence descended once more.

Salinger, meanwhile, continued to write and write from day to day, following a monk-like routine. Others speculated that he was like Jack Torrance in The Shining, repetitively writing the same mad sentence again and again. Was he, asked the New York Times, "a crackpot or the American Tolstoy"? No one knows what, exactly, that legacy will amount to. His position in the American canon is secure, however, and rests on a slender collection of immortal stories and one enduring masterpiece of a novel whose garrulous anguish makes him, in the words of writer Gish Jen "the avatar of American authenticity", a boy for all seasons.

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