Friday, January 29, 2010

R.I.P., J.D. Salinger: 1919-2010

By Manifesto Joe

What were your favorite books in high school? If one of your answers was The Catcher in the Rye, chances are you were a misfit, at least in spirit, for some of your life.

Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of that much-read 1951 American novel, was a 16-year-old outsider who felt the pain of living on the outside, but still wouldn't have it any other way. The confirmed loner behind the book, J.D. Salinger, must have been writing a lot of autobiography there. From the time he was in his middle 30s, he lived reclusively on a New Hampshire farm, and he retired from publishing his work in 1965. He'd had enough of the larger world, and apparently found his own, to his liking, in utter seclusion.

I didn't think he would ever die. I thought they'd have to drive a stake through his heart.

I always felt that Salinger wrote enough of a book, and that I understood so well where he was coming from, that I was never very curious about what he was doing all those decades, or whether he had any other literary treasures locked away in his safe. He spoke for multiple generations of young male outsiders, and so eloquently that I empathized completely with his need for solitude.

Posthumous victory has come for Salinger in the small flood of renewed media interest in him right after his death, and even 45 years after his literary retirement. A man who spent more than half his life as a hermit, he's getting more attention now than almost all writers who seriously try to win the world's brief, icy recognition. Somewhere, he must be chuckling a little over that.

Not many people ever knew Salinger very well. But somehow, out there in the larger world, millions of us knew Holden Caulfield, and all too well. We caught glimpses of him in the mirror every day. Every time we got dumped by our shallow first girlfriends, every time we were repelled by the crude vanity of all the Robert Stratladers out there, every time we ran afoul of some musty character posing as a teacher, every time the essential cruelty of human existence became nakedly obvious -- we saw, and knew, Holden. He was the guy in the mirror.

I'm going on 54, and I still often see the world through Holden's eyes. There really isn't life after high school -- hell, life IS high school. The creepy, semicompetent teachers are all there -- they became bosses. The Stratladers become crude, paunchy has-beens who are still vain enough to presume to make a pass at your wife. The essential cruelty of human existence is still nakedly obvious too many times.

Here's to you, J.D., for getting to tell it like it is, one very glorious time. That's about as much as any misfit can aspire to.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.

1 comment:

Jack Jodell said...

Thanks for posting this great tribute, Manifesto Joe. I think we all live (or have lived) the world through Holden's eyes at one time or another. Especially those of us who reject the all-consuming rat race.