The first literary anniversary of 2019 will be one of the biggest: Jan. 1 marks the centenary of J.D. Salinger. (To mark the occasion, his four books are being reissued in a boxed set by Little Brown.) A hundred years seems like it ought to be a long time in literary history—Salinger is as distant from a child born in 2019 as he himself was from Herman Melville. Yet somehow he doesn’t feel as far removed from us as the other writers of his generation—figures like Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, or John Updike, who also became famous in the post-World War II years. Our readerly accounts with those famous names are basically settled, but Salinger’s remains open; his achievement feels unsettled, incomplete.
One reason for this, of course, is that he never completed the ordinary life cycle of a writer. His first book, The Catcher in the Rye, appeared in 1951 and was an immediate sensation. It was followed two years later by Nine Stories, a collection of short stories that Salinger had published in magazines, including classics like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esme, With Love and Squalor.”
But there was no second novel to follow Catcher, and as the years passed Salinger’s stories grew rarer, longer, and much odder. He produced only two more books, each of which collected two of these long stories: Franny and Zooey in 1961 and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in 1963. His last published fiction, the story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” appeared in The New Yorker, his longtime literary home, in 1965. All of these stories dealt with various members of the fictional Glass family—seven siblings whose precocity, wit, and spiritual depth made them beloved by some readers, and seriously annoying to others.
Then the great silence began. Already in 1953, Salinger had left New York, the scene of almost all his fiction, and moved to Cornish, New Hampshire, where he did his best to drop off the face of the Earth. By the time he died, in 2010, it had been more than half a century since he had published a story or made a public appearance. What news did emerge about Salinger tended to be unwholesome: Memoirs by his much younger lover, Joyce Maynard, and his daughter Margaret Salinger created the impression of a weird control freak, forever experimenting with fad diets and religions.
Yet Salinger’s withdrawal from the world, whatever its motives, had a remarkable effect on his work. In In Search of Lost Time, Proust theorizes that oblivion is the best form of remembrance. That is because ordinary memories blur and fade as we retell them to ourselves; it is only what we don’t know we remember—like the taste of a madeleine—that retains its ability to conjure up the past, when it suddenly and unpredictably returns to consciousness. Salinger’s disappearance had a similarly preservative effect. Most famous writers—especially in Salinger’s generation, when writers were still celebrities—are perpetually in the public eye, as they produce more books, get profiled and interviewed, win awards and start controversies. By the time Norman Mailer died, in 2007, the public had had so much of him it was all too happy to forget about him.
Not so with Salinger, who like Peter Pan never grew old, at least not in public. And the same holds true of his fiction. Reading him is like opening a time capsule, richly redolent of the behaviors, idioms, and ideas of midcentury New York. To take just one minor example: Anyone reading Salinger today will be struck by how incessantly his characters smoke. Zooey Glass, in Franny and Zooey, smokes in the bath and rests a lit cigarette on the sink while he shaves. Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, smokes several packs over the course of a couple of days, and complains about how easily winded he gets. The shellshocked narrator of “For Esme” “had been chain-smoking for weeks. His gums bled at the slightest pressure of the tip of his tongue.”
Clearly, this is not sophisticated Hollywood smoking. It is a neurotic handicap, a way for troubled characters to make literal the obsessive fire always burning in their minds. And Salinger’s interest in neurosis—along with its philosophical cousins, alienation, and ennui—is another sign of his times. His characters live in an atmosphere of psychoanalysis and existentialism; they are obsessed with the problem of authenticity and how to resist the seductions of mass culture. Another thing that Zooey and Holden have in common is their contempt for the movies, which doesn’t preclude fascination with them; Zooey is even a film actor, yet he makes fun of the scripts producers send him.
Today, these can feel like period concerns: Who in the 21st century bothers looking down on the movies, or worries about “selling out,” the way Holden thinks his older brother D.B. has done by going to write screenplays in Hollywood? Yet the continued popularity of Salinger’s work—above all, of The Catcher in the Rye, which still sells 250,000 copies a year—suggests that authenticity matters to us more than we are willing to admit in our virtual and performative age. There is something morally bracing about a character like Holden, who is not afraid to call phonies phonies. His total honesty, even in the midst of deep spiritual confusion, demands a corresponding honesty from us.
Young readers, who are just discovering how much of the adult world is based on playacting and compromise, are particularly attuned to this demand, and Salinger has always been known as a writer for the young. He comes across as a confidant, the rare adult who understands. When Holden Caulfield says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it,” he is of course describing Catcher and Salinger himself.
Salinger, like Peter Pan, never grew old, at least not in public.
The problem, in Salinger’s work after Catcher, was precisely his inability to negotiate the transition to an adulthood he continued to see as fallen. It is no coincidence that Salinger’s Glass stories revolve more and more around Seymour, the oldest brother, whose suicide is narrated in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” By shooting himself at the age of 31, Seymour spares himself the indignities of age—he remains always a “wise child,” as in the title of the radio show the Glass children all appeared on, “It’s a Wise Child.” “Seymour: An Introduction” may be Salinger’s worst story, because it insists on portraying Seymour as so much better than the ordinary run of humanity—smarter, deeper, more innocent, more sincere—that he has nothing in common with other people, and so cannot enter into any kind of plot or situation. He can only be talked about, the way disciples talk about a guru: “Surely he was all real things to us: our blue-striped unicorn, our double-lensed burning glass, our consultant genius, our portable conscience … a mukta, a ringding enlightened man, a God-knower. At any rate, his character lends itself to no legitimate sort of narrative compactness that I know of.”
It’s typical of Salinger’s generation of American Jewish writers that when he looked for a spiritual vocabulary, he turned to the East, to Hinduism and Zen Buddhism, rather than to the resources of Jewish tradition. In general, Salinger was far less interested in writing about Jewishness than contemporaries like Mailer and Bellow. His New York is Manhattan, not Brooklyn or the Bronx; his young people go to Ivy League colleges and prep schools, not City College. Yet the Glass family has a Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother—like Salinger himself—and it’s possible that Holden, too, is half-Jewish. At one point in Catcher, he explains that he got his Irish last name from his father, but that his parents are “different religions.” If so, he’s the best-disguised Jewish character in fiction.
The Glass stories contain some of Salinger’s most vivid dialogue and scene-setting—particularly “Zooey,” which offers a meticulous archaeology of the Glass family’s Manhattan apartment. (A list of the contents of the medicine cabinet fills a page all by itself.) But they also suffer from a kind of Manichaeism: The Glasses have a monopoly on the world’s goodness, while the outside world is full of creeps like Lane Coutell, Franny’s conceited, careerist boyfriend. Finally, Salinger’s message seems to be that moral aristocrats, like the Glasses, must be kind to the common folk, no matter how awful they may be.
This is the burden of the sermon Zooey delivers to Franny at the end of the book, where he reminds her of Seymour’s principle that a performer should always try to do his best “for the Fat Lady.” “This terribly, terribly clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies. … I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer and—I don’t know.” This repellent figure, Zooey goes on to say, is all of us—“there isn’t anyone anywhere who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady.” More, she is “Christ Himself,” a figure of divinity.
This is meant to be a message of humility, but somehow it doesn’t quite come across that way. There remains a clear division between the Fat Lady out in the audience and the Glasses in the spotlight, and the latter can never do more than condescend to the former. Such spiritual noblesse oblige is not a moral posture from which fiction can be written, as Salinger’s later silence indicates. Having made up his mind about people at large—that they are all phonies and Fat Ladies—he stopped being curious about them, and stopped wanting to write for or about them.
When Salinger died, his obituaries hinted at a trove of manuscripts that were ready for publication; but almost a decade later, nothing has appeared. If Salinger was writing during all those silent years, as he occasionally said he was, it’s unlikely that he produced anything resembling the cleverly crafted tales of Nine Stories or as instinctively perfect as Catcher. He was already moving, in “Seymour: An Introduction,” into a discursive kind of anti-fiction, without plot or character, highly self-conscious and fixated on a few religious ideas—detachment, enlightenment—drawn from Zen Buddhism. If he wrote whole novels in this style, it’s hard to imagine them being very appealing.
Even if there are no more masterpieces by Salinger to come, however, he will remain a writer oriented toward possibility. That is because he wrote so passionately, and compassionately, about youth—so much so that he could not bear to put it behind him as a fictional subject. It’s impossible to imagine Holden Caulfield, or Seymour Glass, or their creator, as tired and old, with nothing more to say. That Salinger actually did end up that way—as we all must, if we live long enough—seems like just one more Salinger rumor, which can be dispelled by opening up one of his books.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.