Since he’s largely to blame for me beiing a writer in the first place, I can’t help but pay attention when the great J.D. Salinger emerges from his self-imposed silence. This time he’s trying to put the kibosh on, of all things, some schmuck’s attempt to write a sequel to Catcher in the Rye.
Since Salinger, according to a number of sources, refers to his characters as if they were real people, it’s understandable that he’d react to this invasion of his literary space with as much fury as he reacts to invasion of his property. This puritanical attitude is visible even to people who haven’t read him: Unlike virtually every other book in the world, the Salinger books boast no bright covers, no illustrations, no “about the author” sections. The only hint that these books were written by an actual person, living or dead, comes in those coy dedications that preface the later books, or that winked from the original dust jackets.
The reason this hasn’t discouraged people from wanting to know more about the author is, of course, the inimitable voice of the books themselves. Holden Caulfield may be one of the most convincing human beings in fiction, but we can still sense Salinger’s presence — at once appalled and loving — behind him, while some of the later stories all but dispense with plot and character altogether and give us the author’s uncensored voice. Salinger has a way of seizing on the small, absurd details of the universe — like Holden’s pointless irritation at his old roommate who “was always hanging stuff up in the closet” — and phrasing them in a way that never leaves you.
Unlike almost every other major artist of the century, Salinger sought to remove himself, as much as possible, from a reader’s perception of his work. He seems to have aspired to the kind of two-sentence biography enjoyed by Shakespeare. Had he lived a century or two before, he might have gotten away with it. But in the age of celebrity, Salinger’s reclusiveness seemed too much like a “come-on,” as his ill-fated biographer Ian Hamilton put it, to pass up. Thanks to Hamilton — and a couple of tell-all memoirs — we now know rather too much about Salinger for comfort. Few of the “revelations” add much to our appreciation of the books, since Salinger seems to have never discussed his writing with anyone, even family members.
The miracle is that the work holds up, and stands apart from the legend. Nine Stories is as perfect a short-story collection as anyone has ever written, and the Glass stories — with their charming blend of the elliptical and the comic-tragic — are much better than anyone gave them credit for at the time. As for Catcher, it’s a perfect novel buried under an avalanche of attention (and poor teaching). We should ban it, like those school boards in Alabama often suggest, and come back to it in sixty years; that line about the guy who’s always hanging stuff up in the closet will still be hilarious.