Conversations about my favorite authors will always revolve around David Foster Wallace, Camus, Kafka, Vonnegut and the likes. However in the shadows, the way the man liked it himself, a certain J.D. Salinger will always be extant.
Touted unfairly as a “one hit wonder” for his opus Catcher in the Rye – or on the contrary assaulted for it – Salinger wrote great prose which often looked lackadaisical to many but was true to real life. Even his shorter works, dealing many a times with away from reality precocious kids, or Zen Buddhism felt all too real. What Salinger did manage, even though not to the appeal of most people craving tipsy plots, was instilling a sense of belonging in many emotional readers. Here was a man who wrote about what it really felt to be human, and pointed out how absurd life really is.
Salinger’s works were rife with controversy, and some of them not even of his own accord but due to wrongful interpretations. Catcher In The Rye got banned when it released due to the way it was written; Holden goes on blasphemous rants while challenging God, finds all adults dishonest and phony, is explicitly sexual (which wasn’t taken very well in those times) and expresses his rather offensive opinions laden with cuss words. School principals have many a times labelled it as Communist propaganda. In the USA it got banned from schools, and concurrently was thought to be irrefutably befitting to teach teenagers language. In the 1980’s Salinger found himself amidst FBI investigations due to some delusional people over-influenced by Holden Caulfield. On December 8 1980, Mark Chapman shot John Lennon dead and further inquiry showed how Chapman held deranged beliefs influenced by Holden. He had notes reading :-
THE PHONY MUST DIE SAYS THE CATCHER IN THE RYE !
THE PHONY MUST DIE SAYS THE CATCHER IN THE RYE !
JOHN LENNON MUST DIE SAYS THE CATCHER IN THE RYE !
This was similar to what Robert F. Kennedy’s, Ronald Reagan’s (attempted), Rebecca Schaeffer’s assassin had in his notes. These killers were disillusioned and in deep angst against the world, and saw their respective targets as phony or lacking any real value. The fact that murderers like Mark Chapman used the novel for justifying their acts against humanity is ironic as the novel speaks about the loss of innocence. The killers were wrongly influenced by Salinger’s novel, and the repercussions for Salinger were severe. After being suspected of running a secret terrorist pact and scraps with the FBI, Salinger was finally relieved from suspicion.
Salinger’s misfortune was extended to his relationships as well, as he struggled to find a stable one. Interestingly, he was once dating Oona O’Neill, daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill, who seemed to be too self-indulgent to Salinger. She eventually left him to marry a certain Charlie Chaplin, thus ironically, rendering Salinger as the lovable, but unfortunate, Tramp.
Controversies and eremitic nature aside, he was a supremely adept writer who could engage people without the existence of a plot in his works. Or as Ernest Hemingway said, “Jesus, he has a helluva talent.”
Salinger was an average student, with a recorded IQ of no genius. However, as his books fail to conceal, his EQ was brilliant. He was proficient in English, French and German, and always had a penchant for drama. Later on in life, he nosedived into philosophy, Zen Buddhism and became a recluse while writing only for himself. In between his college and hermit days, he was drafted in the American Army during the Second World War, and this was a turning point in his life, along with the so many other people.
Overall a sensitive person, Salinger was immensely traumatized by the horrors and nature of war and had to be hospitalized for weeks due to combat stress reaction. “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live”, is what he told his daughter on returning. Consequently dealing with the bane and blight of WWII, after becoming himself again, with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact, what did Salinger do? He wrote about a lonely teenager perambulating around New York, trying not to feel lousy. Catcher in the Rye actually found its basis in a short story that Salinger wrote in 1946 called “Slight Rebellion off Madison”, depicting Holden Caulfield with pre-war jitters. However, ultimately Salinger slashed the idea of incorporating war into his masterpiece and instead involved a more resonant and understandable concept which was common to both our daily life and to war – Hopelessness. Catcher in the Rye is a timeless novel because it depicts the loss of innocence, hope and happiness, replaced by urban ennui and inner emptiness. All the more the presence of Holden’s losing sanity and touch with the real world, juxtaposed with constant anxiety and suspicion of others is slowly becoming a hallmark of us, especially the educated class who have to sound and look grateful to be working under a dominant higher authority.
Not only this, from a very literary perspective, Salinger did a commendable job. As John Green pointed out, Holden kept starting his sentences with “listen!”, making the relationship between the reader and the book not only personal but showing how alone Holden really felt. Even though he was always surrounded by people he felt no one really heard him. He of course also hires a prostitute, only to talk to her.
Another thing related to no one responding to him is how insistent he is to know what happens to the ducks in Central Park’s pond during winters. No one pays attention to his question and find it annoying. Moreover the book is written in passive form, and all creative writing teachers will suggest you against incorporating it in your works as it distances the narrator and reader, yet Holden felt like a close friend, with the way he whines and rants, provides opinions about everything. It’s really like you are sitting with him and sharing drinks while he talks about what has been perturbing him.
And thus, Salinger continued to write about dissatisfaction, hopelessness, alienation from the society, much like that present in the oeuvre of Kafka, Bukowski, Dostoevsky and many a times about the rigors faced by youngsters on the cusp of “phony” adulthood.
Salinger’s other works did not garner much reputation when compared to Catcher in the Rye, however most of his other works too were brilliant. His novel Franny & Zooey is just about conversations between a depressed teenage girl and his materialistic boyfriend trying to impress her with non-genuine achievements, and later on the same girl going through an existential and spiritual crisis, being comforted by her elder brother. No plot, but enriching texts with loads to learn from, along with it acting as a modern Zen tale with protagonist Franny progressing from ignorance and depression to enlightenment. This also lead to become a precursor for his brewing interests into spirituality and further on, some of his other works were focused around spiritual tenets too. There is one particular excerpt in Franny & Zooey that I admired for its structure, composition and the meaning it gave out. The scene is one of Zooey, the elder brother, lecturing Franny as she battles depression and disillusionment. ““I hear you,” she said, and drew her legs in still closer to her, as a fortress draws up its bridge before the siege.” This sentence has a great visual imagery attached to it, and shows Franny getting defensive to her brother’s lecture as depressed people often do.
Most rewarding after Catcher would be his collection of short stories, each dealing with one of the other aforementioned emotions. Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut talks about two washed up seemingly 30 year olds, discussing about their collegiate years and how they seemed bursting of potential at that time, and then a few years and bad decisions later, at present are in an abominable fix ripe with conundrums. A Perfect Day For A Bananafish shows the entrapment that depression and insecurity can have on a human mind. Read Teddy for some cerebral onanism and an intro to Salinger’s spiritualism. My personal favorite short story however, has to For Esme- With Love & Squalor. It is probably also the closest Salinger has come to writing about war and its effects. A lonely soldier about to be deployed into action meeting a young orphan girl, who lost her father in a defense operation and then a part detailing the soldier’s post war trauma and nervous breakdown attached to it, with themes of hope, inglorious aspects of often erroneously romanticized war and intrinsic human love ringing loud. Classic Salinger.
“After becoming himself again, with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact” – This sentence was in reference to the short story Esme, and it details a recurring Salinger trait; revival of hope. Salinger himself was an embodiment of the mysterious ways in which hope works, enters and goes, and enters it yet again, as he battled the obscenities of war, constantly felt alien in non-genuine society and yet existed. The way in which hopelessness and gradual renewal of hope has been employed in Esme, draws parallels with Catcher in the Rye. Also, the predicament of the protagonist being lonely and walking around aimlessly, in the harshest weather and desolate setting (an artistic device that Dostoyevsky, Joseph Heller, Laszlo Krasznahorkai and more recently, many asinine Indian soap operas have used) is another concept analogues in Esme and Catcher in the Rye.
Salinger did not only put substance into his works in the form of his themes but also the frequent and clever use of metaphors and symbols, which polish his literature with a certain pizzazz. The way he focuses on the baseball glove, the red hunting cap and the ducks in the pond in the Catcher in The Rye, you know that something is up with those, but lucid comprehension requires some thought. Hence his metaphors and symbols are a somewhat tough to detect but all the more rewarding to understand.
After he stopped publishing his works, Salinger involved himself in Sufi mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism and lived a very ascetic form of life, writing only for his own pleasure. He started despising fame and the various attached connotations of labels that it comes with, leading a very private life for the rest of his life.
I thus posit that Salinger should be read because he is a man with firsthand experience of varied facets of life and death, because he was a man who wrote about innate human tendencies and emotions, because his writing is quite accessible, embellished with great literary devices and will easily surge you into philosophy. To sum up the point of my article, I’ll quote John Updike – “Salinger’s intense attention to gesture and intonation help make him, among his contemporaries, a uniquely relevant literary artist.” Prior to his death, Salinger had made a time table from 2015 to 2020 to release his unpublished works posthumously, and it gives me immense excitement and hope to read more Salinger literature on par with Catcher in the Rye and For Esme, if not better and more enlightened.