Why Salinger still speaks to us

He may not have published very much, but Salinger’s contribution to modern literature was enormous: the creation of a new kind of literary character struggling with the crisis and corrosion of The Individual.

Thomas McGlaughlin Jr

Topics Politics

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Jerome David ‘JD’ Salinger, born in New York City in 1919, one of the most influential authors in postwar American literature, died on 28 January 2010 at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire. Salinger was the author of one novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), one collection of short stories, Nine Stories (1953), as well as two other works, Franny and Zooey (1961) and Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters / Seymour: An Introduction (1963).

Arguably, the most influential aspect of Salinger’s work was the confessional style which it both enacted and helped to inaugurate. Eight years before the publication of confessional poet WD Snodgrass’s The Heart’s Needle, and six years before the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye brought to American literature the character Holden Caulfield, who spoke and thought in the casual vernacular of an American teenager. The novel tells the story of Caulfield’s adventures in New York City in the days following his expulsion from boarding school. Salinger’s 224-page soliloquy is filled with adolescent self-pity and preoccupation, unapologetic ignorance, scorn for grammatical and literary convention, and self-idealisation. For all of these reasons, it has remained delightful to generations of readers (and distasteful to the small number of unperceptive critics).

The book was an instant bestseller, and its enduring popularity demonstrates that its music strikes very close to a cultural chord. (Among its many distinctions is one that is uneviable: it was cited by Mark David Chapman as the inspiration for his murder of John Lennon in 1980.)

In his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch said, ‘To live for the moment is the prevailing passion – to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or for posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.’ Lasch was writing in, and about, the 1970s. But the worldview he described was born long before, in the peculiar historical zero-hour of the 1950s. At that time, the privileged position which America enjoyed in the world was in itself a kind of geopolitical and economic narcissism. America’s inward gaze was mirrored and, perhaps, prefigured by Holden Caulfield.

One might cynically explain Salinger’s significance in this way: The most inward-looking country in the world, at the apex of its economic and cultural pre-eminence, produces a novel about an American in his most narcissistic stage of psychological development. There is great and obvious merit in the cynical view. To the narcissist, the world is an extension of the self. But if the world is an adjunct of the self, then knowledge of reality is a function of one’s perceptions, and truth is a mere measure of the intensity of emotion that accompanies those perceptions. We have no trouble locating in Salinger’s protagonist the residue of these emotivist beliefs: ‘What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of a good-by. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse.’

This preoccupation with sentiment is not unique to Salinger. It is a defining feature of modern culture. Where the truth of an idea is measured only by the degree of one’s belief in an idea, we would expect to find a plurality of religious and ideological beliefs as variable (and contradictory) as human emotion itself. Salinger’s life, as well as his fiction, gives testimony of such intellectual changeability. He was an adherent, at various times, of Kriya Yoga, Zen Buddhism, Scientology, and Christian Science. And a few of his stories – ‘Teddy,’ ‘Franny and Zooey’ – reflect the volatility of his wide-ranging religious curiosity and sensitivity.

Salinger wrote about characters who lived largely immune from the more dire ravages of the twentieth century. But these were characters who were nonetheless profoundly affected by that uniquely modern problem: what to do? The medieval world had subsumed the meaning of the individual into the meaning of the whole. The modern world granted the individual a significance independent of, and free from, the role he exercised in either Church or Nation. But along with this freedom came, on the one hand, a tendency to exalt the individual, and on the other hand, the tendency to leave the individual clueless before the question of his own fate. Salinger’s answer to these questions is not to answer them, but to demonstrate with enormous sympathy and keen detail the beauty of human personality.

In the course of a relatively short career, Salinger managed to draw a number of characters possessed of rare intelligence and sympathy. On a few occasions in the past century, we have been privileged to encounter artists who seemed to be able to overcome the problem of modernity – put most succinctly, the problem of how to be an individual without being an Individual. I would rate the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and the work of Miles Davis as having this power: the ability to draw the audience’s attention to the stylistic qualities of a work of art without unduly drawing the audience’s attention to the artist. At its best moments, JD Salinger’s fiction has this ability. There is a mesmeric, disarming casualness about the speech of many of his characters. We like them. We know them. And most importantly, they – or their author – seem to understand us.

In 1953, Salinger left New York City to live in a secluded property in the small New Hampshire town of Cornish. His writing slowed to a halt from that time onward. By the end of his life, he was as famous for his reclusion as he was for the quality of his early work. The epigram to one of his works is addressed to the ‘amateur reader, or anyone who just reads and runs’. It might be surmised that Salinger was unwilling to subject his creative work to further critical scrutiny. It might equally be surmised that his 50-year silence was a ‘holy silence,’ born of the desire to live quietly and out of public view. Whatever his motivation, there can be no question that Salinger’s narration often does achieve the kind of familiarity which, in one passage, Holden Caulfield himself praises: ‘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. That doesn’t happen much, though.’

Thomas McGlaughlin Jr is a graduate student at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

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