“The Catcher in the Rye” has sold 65 million copies worldwide, but that figure doesn’t say nearly enough. For good or ill, this is the book that recombined our cultural DNA. “It’s impossible to be an American writer now,” Rick Moody says, “and not feel the influence . . . that very personal first-person.” From “The Wild One” and “Rebel Without a Cause” to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” every teen malcontent in our pop culture owes something to Holden Caulfield, his restiveness, his rancor, his conviction that the world he’s inheriting is a sham.
And no one seemed to share that conviction more than Holden’s creator. Having achieved the American dream, Salinger turned heel. He moved to New Hampshire, where he sequestered himself in a concrete bunker and wrote — day after day. He married and had a family, but the claims of his fictional families were every bit as pressing. His work grew denser, less frequent. Then, after 1965, he stopped publishing altogether. Years went by; the faithful waited; nothing came.
The authors of “Salinger” attribute this long silence to his embrace of Vedanta Hinduism, which “transformed him from a writer of fiction into a disseminator of mysticism.” Indeed, the heart of the Salinger mythos was that he was too holy, too monastic for this bitter Earth. And yet, as Shields and Salerno point out, he was very much of the world. He encouraged film adaptations of his work. (Jerry Lewis desperately wanted to play Holden.) He dated a Hollywood actress and a nationally published columnist. He watched TV and traveled and wrote copious numbers of letters. He generally shunned interviews, but at punctual intervals he made himself available to journalists, especially the pretty ones. Above all, he tended his reputation with great ferocity, reading every review, crying foul on pirated editions and suing to stop a biographer from using old letters.
Again and again, the great man’s mythos cracks open to reveal an anti-mythos. Salinger the pacifist creates, in his only novel, an alter ego so at war with humanity that the book becomes the personal Bible of assassins. (Both John Hinckley and Mark David Chapman cited its influence.) Salinger, the modern bard of childhood, neglects his children and engages in a lifelong habit of seducing young, female virgins — girls, many of them — then abandoning them as soon as the affair is consummated.
These are matters of more than prurience. Salinger’s unanchored rage, his deeply conflicted notions of innocence, are as central to his work as to his life. What makes “The Catcher in the Rye” a young-adult novel — which is to say, what limits it — is its implicit endorsement of Holden’s delusions: that children are pure, that a sweet little girl is wiser than any grown-up, that simply to grow up is to be diminished. Indeed, if anything gives that last notion the lie, it’s Salinger’s art. Holden Caulfield could never have written the story of Holden Caulfield. That could have been written only by the man who lived through Utah Beach and experienced the Holocaust firsthand. The man who spent his whole life trying to unsee what he saw.
Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer.