If I have a favorite author (and I’m not sure that I do), it’s J.D. Salinger. It will come as no surprise to you that I discovered him when I read The Catcher in the Rye at 15 or 16, close to the age of Holden Caulfield. By that point I was already interested in writing, so I can’t honestly say anything as cornball as “I’m a writer because of J.D. Salinger.” But it sure as hell didn’t hurt, reading that book, written in that voice, that articulated profanity that sounded like Huck Finn might have had he been afforded more of an education. For years afterward, it was my reflex answer to the question of what my favorite book was.
Salinger died Wednesday at 91. For a reclusive author, he led one hell of a life. He spent the last forty years or so holed up at his place in Cornish, New Hampshire, but before that he was banging Charlie Chaplin’s future wife and killin’ Nazis. Not the entire time, of course — but he did date Oona O’Neil before she took up with Chaplin, and he was drafted into the Army and participated in the invasion of Utah Beach on D-Day, and the Battle of the Bulge.
His career as a professional writer started when he took a class at Columbia University taught by Story magazine editor Whit Burnett, with whom Salinger became friends and corresponded for years following the end of the class. Salinger’s first published work was a piece written for that class that Burnett accepted for Story. See, this is why people move to New York, I’m convinced. Think of all the reasons not to live in New York: the Yankees, Broadway, the fear that at any moment you could round a corner and walk right smack into Rudy Giuliani — there must be some reason why people choose to live there, and here it is: it’s the natural habitat of everyone you ever need to know. Salinger gets his first story published because he takes a class with the editor of a respected literary journal. Hubert Selby Jr. personally walks the manuscript for Last Exit to Brooklyn down to the agent of his close personal friend Jack Fucking Kerouac, who just so happens to live right down the fucking street. Bob Dylan comes to town from Minnesota and invents the 1960s. Woody Allen . . . does something, too. I think the facts speak for themselves.
Anyhow, I didn’t know Salinger except through his work, so that’s what I want to take a few lines to celebrate here in the wake of his death. The Catcher in the Rye was one of the definitive novels of the last half of the 20th century. It’s both one of the most popular and one of the most banned books in the world. Even now, there are schools and public libraries that won’t include it in their collection. Luckily for me, Clear Spring High School was not among them. The copy I read way back when came right off the library shelf. Before too long I’d gone to Waldenbooks in the Valley Mall and bought my own, along with Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction. That last one, incidentally, the collection of two novellas (hence that sea-monster of a title), is my current reflex answer to the question of what my favorite book is. As much as I loved, and love, The Catcher in the Rye, I love Seymour: An Introduction even more.
With Salinger’s death, we surely have many years of posthumously published work to look forward to. Both his children and his various lovers have reported that he continued writing diligently, even though he hadn’t published a new work since 1965. His daughter Margaret once wrote that he maintained a precise filing system for his unpublished work, with some pieces designated to be published “as is” upon his death, others to be published only after editing, and so on. I’m curious to see what comes out — how could I not be? — but I’d also be perfectly content with what I already have. Salinger, like Poe, is unfortunate enough to be incredibly popular among teenagers, a segment of humanity not noted for its taste in literature. Those pimply, whiny little mopes got this one right, at least.
That final published work, a short story titled “Hapworth 16, 1924”, is a letter written by a boy named Seymour Glass. Seymour is also the subject of Seymour: An Introduction, written from the perspective of his younger brother Buddy, now a middle-aged English teacher at a small-town women’s college. Buddy is usually considered to be Salinger’s alter ego (he takes credit for writing a few of Salinger’s short stories), and there are times in Seymour when it sounds like the voice of the writer rather than the character.
For example, the forthcoming big-ass block quote, the conclusion of Seymour: An Introduction, which feels appropriate just now.
I’m finished with this. Or, rather, it’s finished with me. Fundamentally, my mind has always balked at any kind of ending. How many stories have I torn up since I was a boy simply because they had what that old Chekhov-baiting noise Somerset Maugham calls a Beginning, a Middle, and an End? Thirty-five? Fifty? One of the thousand reasons I quit going to the theatre when I was about twenty was that I resented like hell filing out of the theatre just because some playwright was forever slamming down his silly curtain. (What ever became of that stalwart bore Fortinbras? Who eventually fixed his wagon?) Nonetheless, I’m done here. There are one or two more fragmentary physical-type remarks I’d like to make, but I feel too strongly that my time is up. Also, it’s twenty to seven, and I have a nine-o’clock class. There’s just enough time for a half-hour nap, a shave, and maybe a cool, refreshing blood bath. I have an impulse—more of an old urban reflex than an impulse, thank God—to say something mildly caustic about the twenty-four young ladies, just back from big weekends at Cambridge or Hanover or New Haven, who will be waiting for me in Room 307, but I can’t finish writing a description of Seymour—even a bad description, even one where my ego, my perpetual lust to share top billing with him, is all over the place—without being conscious of the good, the real. This is too grand to be said (so I’m just the man to say it), but I can’t be my brother’s brother for nothing, and I know—not always, but I know—there is no single thing I do that is more important than going into that awful Room 307. There isn’t one girl in there, including the Terrible Miss Zabel, who is not as much my sister as Boo Boo or Franny. They may shine with the misinformation of the ages, but they shine. This thought manages to stun me: There’s no place I’d really rather go right now than Room 307. Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?
Just go to bed, now. Quickly. Quickly and slowly.