31 January 2010
29 January 2010
28 January 2010
J.D. Salinger made his way out of this world yesterday at the age of 91. He left behind a small handful of published work and an almost unparalleled commitment to privacy: The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, a couple dozen short stories, and then nearly six decades of silence. There were some lawsuits over the years and there were a couple memoirs – one by a former lover, another by his daughter – but remarkably, once Salinger left Manhattan for the more secluded confines of New Hampshire, he withdrew from public life and never looked back.
If you haven't read any of the obituaries yet, that's a reasonably fair summary of what they're saying. Some focus a bit more on the tremendous importance of The Catcher in the Rye, others on the supposedly sensational aspects of his personal life. (Sample lurid tidbit: His daughter claims he bottled and drank his own piss.) None have portrayed his uncompromising attitude towards his own privacy as something to be admired.
In his own time, Salinger was merely regarded as "enigmatic," but given the nature of the non-stop information cabaret we live in today, the very notion of a literary recluse must seem positively bewildering. After all, what could be more preposterous than rejecting fame when the success of everything from reality TV to social networking phenomena like Twitter is built upon the desire for attention at any cost? Celebrities of a certain stripe invariably complain about lack of privacy, but not a one of them are so put out they'd actually swap fame for a normal life. Holden Caufield had a word for people like that: phonies.
Without undervaluing Salinger's contribution to American literature, I think it's his courage and integrity we should be celebrating. He continued writing long after he'd retreated from public view, he just focused on a different audience: himself. In doing so, he no doubt wrote what he wanted, the way he wanted, with no concern for whatever random expectations his readers or his critics might have placed upon him. In short, he lived his life the way he wanted, and as strange as it seems in this all-access age of rough drafts and demos and director commentaries, anything less would have been a goddamn lie.