Saturday, January 30, 2010

JD Salinger RIP

This week the great writer and notorious recluse JD Salinger passed away at the age of 91. A native New Yorker, he wrote stories about human foibles and dysfunctional relationships with a raw honesty that pulled at readers' emotions like few writers can. He also wrote about this city with an attitude that was both critical and snarky, but ultimately reverential.

Obviously Salinger is most famous for his one novel, The Catcher in the Rye, about teenager Holden Caulfield. Many people consider him the Huckleberry Finn of the 20th century, an iconic figure more real than most real people. Kicked out of boarding school, Holden escapes to New York and gets into various adventures and mishaps. Published in 1951, it became an almost immediate bestseller -- and highly controversial for years afterward. Not only was this a book about a not-so-sympathetic kid but -- told in the first person -- Holden talks openly and frankly about sex and humanity in a way that was shocking for a very conservative country at a very conservative time. He curses, he lies, he does all sorts of mean, nasty things -- and we're supposed to like this kid. Just consider the opening lines of the book:

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

Nobody was writing quite like that back then -- until Salinger. Some people found his frankness refreshing while others thought it was crude. Whatever people's opinion, his literary voice certainly was different for 1951. Salinger was rock'n'roll before rock'n'roll was even invented.

Even if he hadn't written Catcher (considered today to be one of the greatest American novels ever written), Salinger would still be remembered for his wonderful short stories. He published a lot of them both in The New Yorker and printed collections. He published "Nine Stories" in 1953 (which includes, what my mother says is one of her personal favorite short stories ever, "For Esme, With Love and Squalor"). Other story collections include "Franny and Zooey" and "The Glass Family" (about a Jewish family on West End Avenue). His last published story was "Hapworth 16, 1924", published in The New Yorker in 1965. After that, he hid the fruits of his brilliant pen from the world.

Salinger escaped to New Hampshire, living in seclusion, almost never giving interviews, and never appearing in public. The world only knew he existed when, from time to time, he'd sue somebody or other who he thought was abusing or misusing his work or name. Rumors abounded that he was still writing and now, with his passing, speculation is rampant that his post-1965 work will be published. But that is all wait and see.

So farewell JD Salinger -- writer, New Yorker, voice of America's disaffected youth. Thank you for your timeless works and for being yet another great New Yorker of letters, a real attribute to this city's culture.

If you want to learn more about the New York of Salinger's day, The New York Times has some wonderful information about it.

A Walk Through JD Salingers New York
Salinger's Last Known Manhattan Home

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