Friday, 29 January 2010


I'll be punditising about JD Salinger tonight on the BBC World Service programme The Strand, at 2232 GMT, immediately after the news. Stella Duffy was a guest in the studio, and they have taped contributions from quite a few writers. As always, I put my thoughts together and got far too few of them into the programme, but I start by saying how Catcher In The Rye was never any sort of an inspiration for me, explaining how it never struck that chord of alienation, nor of honest superiority to a world that didn't understand. Hell, I'd already read Lolita before I got to JDS; Humbert Humbert was way more alienated!

It occured to me that the success of Catcher may have had an Orson Welles effect on Salinger; re-reading 'Uncle Wiggily In Connecticut' today I was struck not only by how adult its alienation is (it's Richard Yates ten years before Yates), but how much it sets up the world against which Holden Caufield wants to rebel. One of my problems with the book was that for all the glamour of Holden's so-called rebellion, it gets him nowhere, he does nothing, and he winds up headed back to another prep school (I mentioned to the World Service producers that in school my football team beat the one from Salinger's prep school, Valley Forge Military Academy). Thinking about that sense of alienation being just a phase, it's no surprise that Catcher has been one of the most-taught novels in American schools, as well as possibly the most-banned. Holden's brief rebellion winds up with his settling for the diminished expectations of his trip to the zoo.

I also was thinking about the influence of Thomas Wolfe on Salinger; I read Look Homeward Angel before I read Catcher, and noted the debt even when I got to Salinger as a 16 year old. I wondered a bit about The Turn Of The Screw as another inspiration, certainly in the relationship between the expelled prep school boy and his adoring younger sister, if not the ghosts.

Of course this is all archetype. The bildungsroman predates Salinger, though Salinger might be said to have re-invented it by giving it the 'modern' teenager's point of view and vocabularly, at a time when these were being formed into a 'market' different from adults, or miniature adults, as teens had always been. It's odd that this teen genre would explode among a generation who were just a little younger than the teens who had fought in a World War. It's also odd how many readers miss the fact that the world through Holden's eyes isn't the world as it is; even the title shows how he gets Robert Burns wrong, and builds a lovely adolescent fantasy from it; a metaphor, a veritable metaphor Watson!, for the book itself.

And frankly, as I said in the show, albeit in more discreet language, my reaction to Holden was to tell him to get his thumb out of his preppie ass. A lot has been made of Catcher's influence on David Chapman or John Hinckley or their like; it's like a losers' convention, or Salinger as an L Ron Hubbard of teen angst. Except that's not what Salinger wanted, and that's probably why he sued the Swede Fredrick Colting for producing a sequel to Catcher --after watching legions of readers misinterpret what he wrote, why would he want them to read someone else's misinterpretations? I'm sure the only reason he tried to stop publication was a selfish one, so he wouldn't have to live in a world where there was yet another Holden in the public eye. On the other hand I wonder how Salinger would have felt had Howard Roger Garis, creator of Uncle Wiggily, sued him for using his character's name in the title? (We used to play the Uncle Wiggily board game incessantly when I was four or five...that and Candyland.)

I would have liked to discuss My Foolish Heart a bit more; it's Mark Robson at his most turgid (he never does well with subtle emotions) and Dana Andrews at his most wooden, and it's a great example of losing the impact of the story when you try to widen it out, and fill in the backstory. It defeated the Epsteins, precisely because they were filling in, rather than adding to (see the original film of 3:10 To Yuma and Elmore Leonard's short story, as a good example of how that can be done).

The final interesting thing in the programme is hearing Joyce Maynard imply Salinger was a habitual stalker by letter, persumably of younger literary women. But that rather misses the point of Salinger's approach to her, when she was an 18 year old Yale freshman just out of Phillips Andover, who'd written an article for the New York Times magazine called 'An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life', which was later republished as 'Looking Back: A Chronicle Of Growing Up Old In The Sixties'. I can still recall the Mary Tyler Moore pose on the magazine cover, but the essay rang false to me then in almost exactly the same way Holden Caufield did, as self-indulgent moaning. Yet it's not far-fetched to think that Salinger recognised a fellow alienated spirit. What this suggested to me was that he had internalised the Caulfield character, his alienation, and that had shut down, gradually, the adult writer inside him.

Salinger wasn't a recluse in the sense of, say, Howard Hughes, to whom the Independent compared him, nor Greta Garbo, again used by the Indy and Charles McGrath in the New York Times. Reclusivity appears to mean something entirely different in New York than in New Hampshire. Here's McGrath, writing about Salinger and his life in Cornish, NH: He seldom left, except occasionally to vacation in Florida or to visit William Shawn, the almost equally reclusive former editor of The New Yorker. Avoiding Mr. Shawn’s usual (and very public) table at the Algonquin Hotel, they would meet under the clock at the old Biltmore Hotel, the rendezvous for generations of prep-school and college students. The question is how William Shawn could be said to be 'equally reclusive' when he was going to work at the New Yorker and eating lunch every day at a (very public) table at the Algonquin?

Gore Vidal called Salinger's choice 'exile' and as usual he got it right. It was not just exile from the New York's literary world, cocktail parties and small talk, careerism on the make, but also, I think, from the self who had done all that, written Catcher, and perhaps found the idea of trying to top that, within that hothouse environment, too daunting. Or maybe just not worth it. And of course the nature of his reclusivity may have served as the model for other authors, most famously Thomas Pynchon, who found their reputations enhanced by their unwillingness to join the publicity machine. How odd it must seem these days...


Unknown said...

Although Salinger never did much for me, he certainly created a style for himself, and that is a rare thing. So many "media commentators" have been banging on about his hiding away but that is what a true writer should do. Get on with it, whether for publication or not. Almost all commentary is rapidly shovelled into oblivion; to leave behind even one good short story is a far greater achievement. Perhaps Salinger is like Camus or Scott Fitzgerald, a teen thing. The web is creating a weariness with commentary, recognition that time should be spent with original work. Salinger might like that.

Unknown said...

The glib references everywhere as "recluse" by people who did not know Salinger are being shown up by those who did. Whether they are townspeople in Cornish or Lillian Ross who often saw him in Manhattan. The same will probably transpire of Pynchon. Writing definitely means getting on with it and seeing real people, not fretting about what might be going off in the "literary life" and all that stuff which is so absolutely yesterday. Salinger was definitely ahead of his time in that way.

Michael Carlson said...

Couldnt agree more about the 'reclusivity'. An unwillingness to self-promote, or promote, and to live a quiet life, is not reclusive in the sense most of the media tried to make it....I've added a graf to the original piece...

Anonymous said...

Anyone who thinks Holden is just a kavetching rich kid, misses the entire essence of Salinger's work. I understand that if one read the book in middle or high school independently, because all was so literal back then. Missing that Holden is clearly an unreliable narrator who masks his inability to deal with his brother's death, a world in which the A bomb has just been dropped, and who doesn't understand the nuances of growing up--instead focusing, as many children do, on the perversions and excess of it: drinking, smoking, and sex--is less excusable. Holden tells the reader that he is a terrific liar, and while he is, indeed, a liar, he's not so terrific at it; I'm not sure why the reader who embraces his attack on the phonies of the world, might overlook that. As Holden approaches adulthood he cannot allow himself to enter it, because to do so would mean to leave his dead brother behind. Holden doesn't understand that taking responsibility and learning to accept that which can't be changed, like the untimely death of a young boy who never did anything to anyone, is what true adulthood means, and why would he? His father has removed him from the family by sending him to prep school after prep school and voicing his concern to others while never really dealing directly with Holden's issues and his mother never got past it either. It is Phoebe who leads Holden to the realization that Allie is dead, and he has to move on. It isn't an accident that Phoebe is playing Benedict Arnold in the school play, and Holden ends up yelling at her, when she pleads to run away with him, that she can't because she MUST play that role. Indeed she must. Just because he is born into wealth, doesn't mean he is protected. He too experiences the instability of a world in which the A bomb has just been dropped and in which a young, sweet boy whom he loved can "disappear" because of a disease that knows no economic boundaries.

Michael Carlson said...

Interesting, but regardless of how awareness of impending nuclear disaster may be, Holden winds up going nowhere and doing nothing. Wolfe's narrator may be just as unreliable, or may not, but the idea that calling a narrator unreliable allows us to imbue his narration with significant depths doesn't strike me as being particularly, uh, reliable.

But my bigger point was to try and parallel Salinger with his most famous character...though as an unreliable author I suppose we can read his exile in New Hampshire as a reaction to the impending heat death of the universe (oh no, that was Pynchon!