DA THE TIME
Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010
J.D. Salinger Dies at 91: The Hermit Crab of American Letters
By Richard Lacayo
Take the austere little paperbacks down from the shelf and you can hold the collected works of J.D. Salinger — one novel, three volumes of stories — in the palm of one hand. Like some of his favorite writers — like Sappho, whom we know only from ancient fragments, or the Japanese poets who crafted 17-syllable haikus — Salinger was an author whose large reputation pivots on very little. The first of his published stories that he thought were good enough to preserve between covers appeared in the New Yorker in 1948. Sixteen years later he placed one last story there and drew down the shades.
From that day until his death at 91, Salinger was the hermit crab of American letters. When he emerged, it was usually to complain that somebody was poking at his shell. Over time Salinger's exemplary refusal of his own fame may turn out to be as important as his fiction. In the 1960s he retreated to a small house in Cornish, N.H., and rejected the idea of being a public figure. Thomas Pynchon is his obvious successor in that department. But Pynchon figured out how to turn his back on the world with a wink and a Cheshire Cat smile. Salinger did it with a scowl. Then again, he was inventing the idea, and he bent over it with an inventor's sweaty intensity. (See the 100 best novels of all time.)
Salinger's only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, was published in 1951 and gradually achieved a status that made him cringe. For decades the book was a universal rite of passage for adolescents, the manifesto of disenchanted youth. (Sometimes lethally disenchanted: After he killed John Lennon in 1980, Mark David Chapman said he had done it "to promote the reading" of Salinger's book. Roughly a year later, when he headed out to shoot President Ronald Reagan, John Hinckley Jr. left behind a copy of the book in his hotel room.) But what matters is that even for the millions of people who weren't crazy, Holden Caulfield, Salinger's petulant, yearning (and arguably manic-depressive) young hero was the original angry young man. That he was also a sensitive soul in a cynic's armor only made him more irresistible. James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway had invented disaffected young men too. But Salinger created Caulfield at the very moment that American teenage culture was being born. A whole generation of rebellious youths discharged themselves into one particular rebellious youth. (Read TIME's 1951 review of The Catcher in the Rye.)
Salinger drew from Sherwood Anderson, Isak Dinesen, F. Scott Fitzgerald and especially Ring Lardner, whose wise-guy voice you hear chiming in the snappy banalities and sometimes desperate patter spoken by Salinger's characters, a tone that found its way years later into the neurotic chatter of Woody Allen's New Yorkers. But Salinger bent it all into something new, a tone that drew from the secular and the religious, the worldly and the otherworldly, the ecstatic and the inconsolable. It's customary to assume that the seven Glass children — the Glass family, an intricate hybrid of showbiz and spirituality, was Salinger's other enduring creation — make up a kind of group portrait of Salinger, each of them a reflection of his different dimensions: the writer and the actor, the searcher and the researcher, the spiritual adept and the pratfalling schmuck. That may very well be true. He made sure we could never be sure. Holden Caulfield says, "Don't ever tell anybody anything." That's one time you know it's Salinger talking.
Jerome David Salinger was born in New York on Jan. 1, 1919. His mother was a Scots-born Protestant who changed her name from Marie to Miriam to accommodate her Jewish in-laws. His father Solomon was a food importer who was successful enough by the time Salinger turned 13 to move the family to Park Avenue and enroll his underachieving son in a Manhattan private school. Salinger flunked out within two years. He was then packed off to Valley Forge Military Academy, outside Philadelphia. It would later be the model for Pency Prep, the school Caulfield runs away from. (See the top 10 banned books.)
After graduating from Valley Forge, Salinger ran away from several schools. He managed only two semesters at New York University before dropping out. His father decided to take him into the family business and brought his boy along to Austria and Poland to learn all about ham. "They finally dragged me off to Bydgoszcz for a couple of months," Salinger wrote years later. "Where I slaughtered pigs, wagoned through the snow with the big slaughtermaster." Ham was not in his future. Back in the U.S., he made another halfhearted attempt at school, this time at Ursinus College in rural Pennsylvania. He lasted a semester, then drifted back to Manhattan.
By this point Salinger had a general destination in mind: he wanted to be a writer. In the fall of 1939, he signed up for a writing class at Columbia University taught by Whit Burnett, founder and editor of Story, a highly regarded, little magazine that had been the first place to publish William Saroyan, Joseph Heller and Carson McCullers. Burnett quickly took notice of his talented pupil and made sure that his magazine would be the first place to publish Salinger. In its March-April 1940 issue, Story carried "The Young Folks," a brief, acidic vignette of college students at a party, prototypes of all the disaffected young people who would appear in Salinger's fiction.
Over the following months, Salinger broke through to mass-circulation magazines like Collier's and Esquire and had a tantalizing first brush with the New Yorker, the magazine he wanted badly to appear in, the one that could validate him not just as a professional writer but also as an artist. By this time, he had written a story about a boy named Holden Caulfield who runs away from prep school. The New Yorker accepted it, then put it on hold. But Caulfield was a character close to the author's heart, and Salinger wasn't done with him.
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In April 1942, four months after Pearl Harbor, Salinger was drafted. Eventually he was shipped to England as part of the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, which was training American soldiers to do things like interrogate suspected Nazi collaborators. He brought with him a little typewriter that he carried across Europe, writing all the time. On D-Day he was part of an infantry regiment that landed on the beach at Normandy. By August, Salinger's regiment had fought its way to Paris and from there pushed on to Germany. In the autumn and winter he would be involved in some of the most horrific campaigns of the war, including the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, a months-long slugfest in freezing, muddy, mine-infested woods.
We don't know much about what happened to Salinger during those campaigns. But Ian Hamilton, his beleaguered biographer — beleaguered by Salinger, who successfully sued to keep Hamilton from quoting from his letters — believes that not long afterward, Salinger suffered a nervous breakdown. In Hamilton's book In Search of J.D. Salinger he summarizes a letter Salinger wrote in July 1945 to Hemingway, whom Salinger had met the year before in Paris, telling him that he was being treated at a hospital in Nuremberg for a condition that might lead to a psychiatric discharge from the Army. If that's so, then surely it's Salinger himself at the heart of his great, complicated story "For Esme, with Love and Squalor," about an American soldier struggling after a hospitalization of some kind to "keep his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact." In September of that year Salinger did something peculiar, perhaps the act of a man grasping for a stabilizer: He abruptly married a French woman living in Germany. Salinger brought her with him when he returned to the U.S. the following spring, but soon after, for reasons we don't know, she went back to France and dissolved the marriage.
Back in New York, living again with his parents, Salinger returned to writing full-time and finally breached the citadel of the New Yorker. In 1946 the magazine published the Holden Caulfield story it had toyed with earlier. Two years later, Salinger was taken up by the magazine as a regular, publishing three pieces in six months. From then on, he never published anywhere else. And with the exception of two pieces in his 1953 volume Nine Stories, he turned his back on the work he had published elsewhere, never allowing it to be collected or anthologized. (See the top 10 magazine covers of 2009.)
The first of that early trifecta of New Yorker stories was "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," in which we first meet Seymour, the eldest of the Glass children. It's the last day of his life, and he appears in just the final pages, talking with a little girl on a beach in Florida — one of the many radiant children in Salinger's work — and bringing her out into the ocean in a fond but also slightly dangerous way, and then returning to the hotel room where his new bride, who has been on the phone earlier assuring her mother that Seymour is not crazy, lies sleeping. The last line reads: "Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple."
That brutal finale made Salinger a sensation in literary circles. By that time Salinger, too, was becoming a man who could not abide the world. The producer Darryl Zanuck bought the screen rights to another of Salinger's New Yorker stories, "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," about a suburban housewife who dissolves into self-pity during an afternoon of drinking with an old school chum. Zanuck had it rewritten as a throbbing melodrama with Susan Hayward that was released under the title My Foolish Heart. The whole thing made Salinger cringe.
He poured his resentment into a tirade against Hollywood that Holden Caulfield delivers in The Catcher of the Rye. A few critics objected to Caulfield's free use of fairly innocuous curse words, but most of the reviews were exultant. Catcher stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for seven months, then developed its enduring afterlife. But Salinger had long since moved on from concerns with adolescent dissatisfaction to an interest in Eastern religion, especially the Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century Hindu mystic. His beliefs started to find their way into his fiction. In his haunting story "Teddy," a college instructor on a transatlantic cruise ship makes the acquaintance of an otherworldly little boy who calmly believes himself to be a reincarnated soul and meets a fate he predicts for himself. (See more about J.D. Salinger.)
By the time he published that story, in 1953, Salinger had found his own sort of yogi's retreat, the small house in Cornish, N.H. When he first took it on, it had no heat, electricity or running water. But it rested on 90 hillside acres that could insulate him from an outside world he found increasingly trivial, irrelevant and intrusive. For a while he mixed comfortably with his neighbors. But then a couple of teenage girls interviewed him for what he thought would be a story on the high school page of the local paper. When the paper billed it instead as a scoop in its regular pages, Salinger was furious. It was the last interview he ever gave. Not long after, he built a high wall around his house.
It was after his move there that Salinger met his second wife. Claire Douglas was a 19-year-old British-born Radcliffe student. They were married in 1955, but not before Douglas, having already met Salinger, abruptly entered a brief marriage to a graduate of the Harvard Business School, then fled back to Salinger. Salinger poured his feelings about that relationship into a long short story that was published in the New Yorker two weeks before their wedding. "Franny" is about one of the Glass sisters who realizes that she can't abide the jerk she's dating, a smug young Ivy League academic, and flees to the bathroom of a restaurant where they're eating to seek the refuge of an endlessly repeated prayer.
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From now on Salinger would write only about the Glass family. "Zooey" was the story of how a Glass brother, the actor Zooey, tried to illuminate sister Franny about the pros and cons of the material world after she breaks up with her Ivy League boyfriend. In "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," another Glass brother, Buddy, a writer who is one of Salinger's various stand-ins for himself, thinks back on the uproar of Seymour's wedding day. Then in 1959 came the epic-length "Seymour: An Introduction." In a story full of all kinds of narrative wanderings and digressions, Buddy thinks back on his saintly, much-loved older brother, years after his suicide, and tries to account for his odd radiance.
In 1961 Salinger published Franny and Zooey as a single volume. It stayed at the top of the best-seller list for six months. By that time, the cult status of The Catcher in the Rye was fully established. But in some important corners of American letters, there was a backlash forming. In reviews that were on the whole positive, John Updike still found Salinger sentimental, and Alfred Kazin thought he was getting "cute." For years John Cheever told friends that he thought Salinger wouldn't let Hollywood make a movie version of Catcher because Salinger was too old to play Holden. And in a review that is said to have infuriated Salinger, Mary McCarthy accused him of a "terrifying" narcissism and wondered whether Seymour killed himself because he suspected that he, too, was "a fake." (See TIME's 1961 cover on J.D. Salinger.)
For whatever reason, Salinger published just one more book, combining "Carpenters" and "Seymour," in 1963, though in a foreword he promised readers that more Glass stories were under way. Two years later there was that final long story in the New Yorker, called "Hapworth 16, 1924," which purports to be a letter home from summer camp by a wildly precocious 7-year-old Seymour. After that, the signal shuts down. Salinger was occasionally spotted in public but spoke publicly only on rare occasions.
Salinger's marriage to Douglas was also over by 1967, though they continued to live near one another so they could share in the upbringing of their two children, Margaret, who would publish a not entirely flattering memoir about her father in 2000, and Matthew, who became an actor and producer. Salinger would remain a recluse, but he was never inclined to be a hermit. Within a few years of his divorce, he enticed another young woman to join him in exile. In April 1972, the New York Times Magazine published what would be a much-discussed article, "An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life." The author was a high school senior named Joyce Maynard. The piece brought Maynard a lot of fan mail, including an admiring letter from 53-year-old "Jerry" Salinger. A long correspondence followed during Maynard's first year at Yale, with the tone on his end evolving from fatherly to something more romantic. At the end of her freshman year, Maynard dropped out of Yale, which meant losing her scholarship, to move in with Salinger in Cornish. (See the top 10 most reclusive celebrities.)
Twenty-five years later she wrote about their relationship in a memoir, At Home in the World, the only detailed picture we have of Salinger in later life. She was prompted to go public, she said, by the discovery that he had carried on the same kind of intimate correspondence with other young women, whom he then dropped just as he did her. One year after her book was published, Maynard put 15 of Salinger's letters to her up for auction. They were bought for $156,500 by software entrepreneur Peter Norton, who returned them to Salinger.
The picture of Salinger that Maynard draws for us is of a man preoccupied by homeopathic medicine who had a diet regimen built around vegetables and ground lamb cooked at very low temperatures. He loved certain TV programs — The Andy Griffith Show, The Lawrence Welk Show — and had reels of old Hollywood movies that he projected at home. He wrote every day, but the unpublished work was stored away in a large safe that occupied a good part of one bedroom. She tells us that because she found sexual intercourse with Salinger too painful and frightening to complete, she remained a virgin during their months together. All the same, Maynard wanted children, but the man who had summoned her there wasn't interested in starting another family. And he looked on in gathering disgust as Maynard, who was preparing to expand her Times Magazine article into a book, was seduced by the New York publishing and media world he detested. After 10 months together, Salinger abruptly called things off.
Is that surprising? A long time ago Salinger called things off with the entire world. As keepsakes he left us those four little books. And maybe, depending on his last wishes, some of those unpublished manuscripts will find their way into print. Salinger struggled all his long life with the contradiction between his gifts as a writer and his impulse to refuse them. Here's his character Franny Glass outlining the dilemma of someone like Salinger who wants to abandon the ego, the will to "succeed."
"Just because I'm so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else's values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn't make it right. I'm ashamed of it. I'm sick of it. I'm sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I'm sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash."
That's another time you know it's Salinger talking.