News & Politics

J.D. Salinger Dead at 91


J.D.Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye and with it, a literary template for teenage rebellion that has been followed faithfully ever since, has died. A statement from the author’s son, released via his publicist (more on this funny word later), said that the 91 year old recluse had died of old age in New Hampshire, where he’d lived in isolation for decades.

“Phonies” was the word of course–that weird adolescent certainty that those around you are somehow deranged, faking it, the ones who, as per Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield, make “me so depressed I go crazy.” Indeed: in Catcher, Holden gets himself expelled from the fictional bastion of high school conformity that is Pencey Prep and heads to New York, where he more or less has a nervous breakdown. Encounters with a prostitute, her pimp, Caulfield’s sympathetic sister, and his randy English teacher soon follow. Towards the end of the book, he heads first to the zoo and then to the nuthouse, where he looks forward to heading back to school in the fall.

It was a book about not fitting in and not growing up, and it became part of the foundation myth for thousands of adolescents. Later, it would even become Salinger’s own. His distaste for fame grew in proportion to the amount of it he achieved: he published his last fiction of any kind in 1965 (the short story “Hapworth 16, 1928,” which ran in the New Yorker), and gave only a handful of interviews in the five decades that followed. In one, he said: “I love to write and I assure you I write regularly. But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it.” Presumably, there are many unpublished manuscripts in a vault somewhere, monuments to the writing Salinger loved to do, even as he grew to hate sharing it with the rest of the world.

As for what we do have: 1951’s Catcher, Nine Stories, originally published in 1953, the tiny gem that is Franny and Zooey (1961), and 1963’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. It’s a thin catalogue that readers have worn grooves in over the half century since Salinger stopped publishing, made perhaps even more dear by the author’s pointed withdrawal from the literary world that–in equal measure–adored, respected, and mocked him as a lightweight. Most of the news since the ’60s had been of the tabloid kind–Mark David Chapman, unauthorized biographies of all sorts, and most recently, and bizarrely, Fredrik Colting’s (alias novelty-book writer John David California) Catcher sequel, 60 Years Later Coming Through the Rye. Salinger was shy but litigious, and none of these projects ever–legally, anyway–ultimately saw light of day.

“Jesus, he has a helluva talent,” Hemingway once supposedly said about J.D. Salinger, which was true. Once, he was hailed as the future of post-war American fiction before, as the Times has it, he headed off to Cornish, New Hampshire, where he ably fulfilled “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.'” Everything he wrote is worth reading, and those who have been waiting a long, long time for new work may finally get their wish, depending on what happens with his estate. It seems only fitting to honor his memory and hope that they don’t.

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