A point about Salinger - Macleans.ca

A point about Salinger


Proceeding in their usual rhythm, the literary necrophages have moved on from contemplating the legacy of J.D. Salinger to considering how it might now be suddenly enlarged by his demise. Salinger gave few public statements in the last 45 years, but he did insist until at least 1980 that he had continued to write. His daughter’s memoir suggests that he did not intend for this hidden oeuvre to be destroyed by his executors. Quite the contrary: the work seems to have been labelled and organized specifically for the purpose of future publication.

I see three possibilities here, of which only one—and not necessarily the most likely one—is dominating the post-mortem discussion.

1) It’s all been rumour and leg-pulling, and there is no Salingerian treasure chest. If there ever was one, it may have been destroyed—twenty years ago, or last week. And if one survives, it may be full of the equivalent of hundreds of typewritten pages full of “All work and no play makes Jerome a dull boy.” We can agree that the man was at least something of a crank; even though he had a known clinical history of post-traumatic stress, we have a lazy habit of regarding his quirks and reclusiveness as marks of genius rather than pathologies.

2) Salinger left behind exactly what we all expect him to have left behind: a sheaf of terse East Coast fiction about bright, neurotic mid-century adolescents afflicted with various forms of philosophical second sight.

But what about the other outcome, the one nobody is talking about? 3) Salinger eventually grew up. It’s not impossible, Salinger haters! What if he moved on from the Glass family and explored unexpected forms and topics? What if they crowbar open the filing cabinet and it turns out he wrote an allegorical science fiction epic? What if he wrote a biography of Napoleon III? What if he wrote ten volumes of brutal Sadean pornography? What if he spent decades mastering Japanese and wrote exquisite lyric verse that could turn Sapporo into a castle of frozen tears? What if he left behind reams of baroque Barthelmean meta-fiction better than Barthelme’s? What if he assembled a cynical but massively authoritative brief guide for young fiction writers?

None of this is very likely. I don’t want to be accused of not facing facts: writers left alone with money and without deadlines create a lot more crappy watercolour paintings than they do good books. But what does seem very possible is that the temptation to put his own experience in order struck Salinger, as it strikes almost every writer eventually. Surely it is this possibility that should command the attention of the Salinger detractors. Even fans might be willing to admit he was somewhat sophomoric and sentimental; but can there be a critic so stone-hearted that he would not be at least a little interested in Salinger’s personal account of the battle of the Hürtgen Forest?

Filed under:

A point about Salinger

  1. Model knew that Wilck could hold out several weeks, or so he claimed, and was well stocked with ammunition, for what that was worth. The reason he wanted to hold out was to block VII Corps' advance or something. All that "Jawohl, mein General" and "Ils ne passeront pas!" stuff. But meanwhile US 9th Infantry Division, who were a bunch of phonies, came up and took Schmidt, town of, and they felt great, except that typically enough they weren't reinforced. So they got expelled by the Panzer guys, a bunch of them, and the 112th had a hell of a time, from what you can figure out, which isn't much.

    • So the answer to my concluding question would be "Yes", then.

      • Yes indeed! "Stone-hearted" is something of an understatement, however.

        • Flinty.

  2. A discourse on the essential phoniness of literary writing, pointing to the fact that no one was able to understand that The Catcher in the Rye was intended as a caustic parody of the adolescent mindset of the literary establishment. Includes extensive discussion of the superiority of genre writing.

  3. Perhaps if and when Salinger had noticed that the phonyness had truly disappeared out of our environment, he might have wanted to add to it in earnest. Perhaps he had not found that the phoneyness he talks about has disappeared at all. In fact, it may have gotten worse since the 1950's. And if "they" didn't understand him the first time around why would a second helping be of any use?

  4. as so happened, I finished re-reading Catcher in the Rye the day before Salinger's death. At first, I had read the novel while attending a Dutch highschool during the seventies, and my understanding of english wasn't what it is now (reading Catcher in the Rye was one of the books on our list to read for english class).
    Rereading the novel was interesting, not only because my understanding of the english language is much better now than it was then, but I was able now to read the novel with some personal years of maturity attached.

    But why must we so eagerly await whatever it is he might or might now have written after Catcher in the R ye? Perhaps he was genuinly disappointed at the phoneyness existing in the world, as clearly enough expressed within the novel, that he felt there wasn't much more to add to that if the phoneyness is still so very much alive today.

  5. As it so happened, I read "Exit Ghost" by Philip Roth two days before reading "Catcher in the Rye". The combination of the two books is an interesting one.

    Also, Barbara Kay's column today "The lost Eden of Childhood" added to the explanation of what Salinger had tried to come to terms with.

    Human relationships. Human intelligence. Human spirituality. And so forth.

  6. But surely most of this has been published already–Vineland, Mason and Dixon, Against the Day, Inherent Vice etc.?

  7. I take CC's last point as given – who isn't curious. However, the literary landscape is littered with the bones of those who gave it their best shot …once. Harper lee's To kill a Mockingbird springs to mind. Oddly – or not – they were both around the same age, and both became reclusives. I imagine any real similarities end there. I'm not holding my breath.

    • I'm of the opinion that Catcher in the Rye was Salinger's weakest published work…The Glass kids are just so much more interesting than Holden.

      Also, haven't you heard? Lee didn't write To Kill a Mockingbird, Capote did ;)

      • You're not serious? I knew Capote was a childhood and lifelong [ i think?] friend. Please don't destroy another of my life's illusions! I bet you thought Bacon ghost wrote for shakespeare too…you sh** disturber! :)

        • Yeah, I don't really believe for a second that Capote wrote Mockingbird…but it sure is a fun urban legend to peddle ;)


        • It's funny thing, strong influences in a writer's life. I've been reading a bit about Ed Ricketts – the model for Steinbeck's Doc in Cannery row. It turns out Rickets had an enormous infuence over a great deal of Steinbeck's work…almost to the point you could argue he shoulds got some credit. In any case Steinbeck was a great writer and Ricketts acknowledged it…I'm not sure Steinbeck returned the favour…except in his writing of course.

  8. Makes you wonder if other things will change, too.
    Will his works be released in electronic book?
    Will all his uncollected works he fought to keep unpublished get published?
    Will we all gain a better opinion of the man? At the moment, it's like we're all kind of embittered he hid himself so long ago, and annoyed at his unceasing litigation during life.

  9. It would be interesting to see what exactly Salinger has written in the past four decades, especially if it is something wildly different as you said and as long as it's actual finished work. Unfortunately, I can easily see Salinger becoming another Tolkien, i.e. everything he ever wrote on an the back of an envelope or cocktail napkin is considered worthy of being published. It's bad enough that they're giving Vonnegut that treatment.

  10. I believe, Colby, you have just joined the ranks of the necrophages.

  11. … In my experience, Salinger was the greatest wordsmith of all time. Not the "Catcher", but the later writings.
    … No one has ever achieved such daringly balanced literary mobiles as he. Though, I am coming to consider Rex Murphy as his possible equal.
    … However, Salinger never found any true purpose or meaning in life. His characters, as in his own life, were nothing more than incredibly gifted individuals who never discovered any true creative, constructive contribution to our world.
    … God gave Salinger an unparalleled gift, and he hid his light under a bushel. A wasted life, and a wasted gift.

    • a wasted life, and a wasted gift…you mean like: Malcolm Lowry and Dylan Thomas and god knows how many others?

      • I want to hear more about this Rex Murphy thing.


    • Wow, and who the hell are you, spouting off this crap? Who are you to say there even is a God, let alone cite his intentions? Who are you to decide a life is wasted or not?

      Oh, maybe you ARE God, Iain?

  12. "writers left alone with money and without deadlines create a lot more crappy watercolour paintings than they do good books"

    Great line — reminds me of Spalding Grey's take on writing novels in "Monster in a Box."