Friday, January 29, 2010


J.D. with his daughter, Margaret

Yesterday morning I was going through my Email which I do fairly consistently throughout the day so it does not pile up on me, when I saw the name of my last living favorite author on one of my news alerts.
"Oh no..." I said to myself, and teared up a bit. I knew what the story must be about without having to read it, but read it I did and my suspicions bore out.
The author, although well known, and considered by many to be "the most important American writer to emerge since World War II," had made the decision to abandon public life more that 50 years ago, living ever since in seclusion near the Blue Mountain Forest Preserve in New Hampshire. He hadn't published anything since 1965, and he was born in the same year as my own father, 1919, so I instantly knew there was only one reason why his name would suddenly appear in a New York Times news alert.
Jerome David Salinger had died the day before, Wednesday, the 27th of January, of "natural causes." He was 91, a good long life.
I read part of the story, then immediately Emailed my friend, Michele, and informed her of his passing. I don't know why. Sharing my grief I suppose (she later in the day informed me that her husband had noticed an earlier Email I had sent her in which I called her a "pretty lady," and was concerned, which mortified me, and seemed to amuse her. Thanks for the heads up that hubby rifles through your Email's Michelle! The next thing you're going to tell me is that he knows of our secret plans to elope to Morocco. Oooppps! Did I just write that out loud?!). I then mosied on over to the Olympia for this week's Cooking Club, with enchiladas on the menu (as usual I cooked the hamburger... to perfection I might add).
Alone with case manager Paul briefly, I told him of Salinger's death.
"Really? I though he was already dead."
Nope. He lived 26 days after his 91st birthday. It's amazing to me (and I'm not exactly sure why) that the author of "The Catcher in the Rye," "Nine Stories," "Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters, & Seymour, an Introduction," and "Franny & Zooey," was alive to experience the same contemporary events that I have experienced... perhaps he had seen "Avatar," or was a fan of "Desperate Housewives," or what did he think of our first black President, or a host of other issues that could easily make my head explode if I were to think about it too much.
Later I told my lovely case manager, Erin, that my last favorite living author had just died (the second to last being Kurt Vonnegut).
"Who?" she asked.
"J.D. Salinger," I told her.
"I don't know who that is," she said.
Ah, she didn't know the man, but maybe...
"Have you ever heard of "The Catcher in the Rye?" I asked.
"Oh yes! I know that one. Are you going to write a memorial on your blog tomorrow?" she asked.
My lovely case manager knows me only too well.
The work it seems was much more famous than the man.
I got the same result when I spoke of it with Robert who was making a rare Cooking Club appearance (enchiladas being the draw). He knew of the Catcher book, but not the author. Perhaps, and I believe this to be true for no reason whatsoever, Mr. Salinger liked it that way.
I own those four books mentioned above, the only ones he ever published. They''re sitting just before me right now mixed in piles of other books on my work desk leaning against my eastern wall. Only one was a complete novel, "The Catcher in the Rye." Raise High & Franny being a compilation of two novellas, both primarily concerned with his fictional Glass family. The "Nine Stories," book was just that, a collection of nine short stories that had been previously published most often in The New Yorker magazine. Three of these stories concern members of that famous family.
I first became aware of Salinger's work by reading Catcher at about the same age of it's protagonist, Holden Caulfield, in my late teens. I thought it was a wonderful novel, not because of the plot or story particularly, but because of the way it was written. For me it was a liberating piece of work. I never thought a work of fiction could be written in such easy going, common, colloquial language and get away with it, while still being considered a serious work of fiction. Now I had read the short stories of Mark Twain, which some may say go way over the top in their sensationalist presentation ("Journalism in Tennessee," comes to mind), but that was pretty much straight forward satire. Catcher was not satire, but the story of an angry, disgruntled young man, told by the young man in the first person, in his own way, which often employed elements of humor and sarcasm, observation and sentimentality, idealism vs reality, the way many of us real people may view the world and talk about it when no one else is listening, as if in a diary (Humm, a diary, imagine that).
It was published in 1951, and has been in print ever since, selling more than 65 million copies (about 250,000 a year), and is considered one of the best novels of the Twentieth Century. Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States due to its frank language and themes of teenage alienation and rebellion. In 1981, it was both the most censored book and the second most taught book in public schools in the country.
But Salinger grew weary of the attention his success had given to him and he became more and more reclusive, and publishing less and less. In 1953 he moved to New Hampshire, eventually retiring entirely to his home.
He could afford to live anyway he choose of course, the continuing sales of his work permitting that. Many rumors have spread, much by his own family, about his odd, overbearing behavior, but these have been equally discounted by others, so who knows for sure, and why should we care. The man lived they way he choose to, and if we were to condemn every artist whose actions proved difficult for those who dealt with them, on either a professional or personal basis, then we would be condemning the likes and work of Van Gogh and Peter Sellers as well, and I'm just not willing to do that.
His work stands alone. For it we are a better, richer, people, nation and world.
I'll end with the words and thoughts of J.D. Salinger's most popular creation, those of Holden Caulfield and his great aspiration:
"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be."

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