Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Enigma That Was J.D. Salinger

Like every other high school student in the early 1980's, I read J.D.Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye in English class. I didn't like it. Literary characters become real people for me, at least for the time that my nose and mind are buried in the book world in which they live ... and die. And Holden Caufield was not someone I would ever like, could ever be friends with. His self-absorbtion was boring and his language disgusting. I cringed a lot while reading Catcher, bombarded by this character who walked all over me, not caring that he left huge bruised footprints in his wake. I put down the book with relief when it was finally finished and was absurdly grateful that my English teacher, Mr. Sebastian, was not requiring a paper to be written on Holden. I tried re-reading Catcher in my more mature twenties and set the book aside in disgust after ten pages. Holden and I were simply not going to be friends, and the less I saw of him, the better. And so has our relationship remained.

But in the 1980's, a co-worker at B. Dalton was a huge Salinger fan. Susan and I both appreciated reading "real literature" versus the mass media slop available. She tended toward the more modern literature of Updike and Atwood while I remained enconsced in the nineteenth century novels of Austen, the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, and Elizabeth Gaskell. But we both knew good stuff when we ran across it and shared with each other generously; while I harkened her back to the nineteenth century, she dragged me forward into the twentieth.

And her favorite author was ... Salinger. Of course.

But not Catcher in the Rye.

Susan opened to me a whole new world of Salinger. She started me slowly with Nine Stories, most of which involved the eccentric Glass family -- child prodigies who had been on a radio game show in the 1930's and now struggled with living in a world in which their genius was more encumbrance than blessing. The most shocking tale is the first story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Oh, it seems tame enough ... until the last paragraph, even the last sentence. Through these stories we gain glimpses into the life of an extraordinary family who can't live well in an ordinary world.

Here's a link to introduce you to the Glass family or refresh your memory: The Glass family.

The above article reminds us that all of the Glass family stories but one were first printed in The New Yorker, that erudite home of erudite writers. They were collected into several books: Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. The influence of eastern mysticism pervades the books, both via Buddhism and the Eastern Orthodoxy Christian faith. Several of the Glass "children" discuss the Eastern Christian classic The Way of the Pilgrim (which I read a few years ago) and the contemplative Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

As a young woman who had grown up without a great deal of religious influence (although I became a Christian at age 8 after attending a Mormon Sunday service with neighbors), the brief glimpses of Christianity in Salinger's books drew me into them as I hungered and thirsted for glimpses of Christ. Probably not the effect he was striving for as a writer, but one I valued nevertheless. (I had the same reaction to any songs that mentioned Jesus or God, but that's another post.)

So with Salinger's death last week, I find myself mulling over the conundrum that Susan posed to me all those years ago throughout the 1980's when we worked at B. Dalton. Susan stated one night that she couldn't decide: did she want Salinger to live a long life after which all the stories and books he had composed over the years would at long last be published, or did she wish him a short life so she could get her hands on his supposed books that much sooner, even if he had written fewer works? We both decided at long last that we wished Salinger a long life, hoping desperately for two things:

1. That he kept writing all these years since his last publication in the early 1960's, and

2. That he had arranged to have those stories and books (if they exist) published posthumously.

Since he has indeed lived a long life, passing away last week at the age of 91, we can only hope for additional stories and books to be added to the Salinger canon. And I hope for more stories of the eccentric Glass family as seen through the eyes of Buddy Glass, the "sane" brother who narrated so many of the stories and may have even "written" Salinger's so-called masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye.

Over the weekend I found a wonderful article about Salinger and his reclusivity: Seaching for Salinger But Finding Something Better. Enjoy!

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