J.D. Salinger, cool when culture heroes were in

J.D. Salinger
J.D. Salinger (Lotte Salinger/associated Press)
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By Henry Allen
Friday, January 29, 2010

At the end, with J.D. Salinger dead at 91, we have no memories of him.

That is to say, we have no cranky anecdotes about thrown drinks, no second cousins who once stood next to him at a roulette table, no paparazzi pictures of him with his long face and solemn eyes staring with predatory kindness at some starlet in Malibu (careful not to look at her breasts, of course).

He was a sort of saint to his upscale readers, a foe of the cruel and the vulgar, a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, it was said, a man who in his writing found his masculinity in sensitivity and self-deprecation.

Not like Hemingway on safari or Fitzgerald in the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel or Kerouac hurling himself back and forth across America.

They were famous public figures. Salinger was merely famous, idolized, envied; an acutely private figure who was a recluse for more than 50 years in Cornish, N.H. He was still famous when he died.

But we have no memories of him, to speak of, aside from gritty memoirs by his daughter, Margaret, and the writer Joyce Maynard, who, as a freshman at Yale, found herself in a claustrophobic grind of a relationship with him. And lawsuits protecting his privacy and copyrights, and the endless rumors of insanity or Buddhist monkhood.

Back when he was publishing -- his last short story appeared in the New Yorker in 1965 -- he was a demigod in a cult that seemed like a conspiracy between his books and his readers. He had mystique and a second-hand charisma that came from his prose, not his persona. His glamour dwindled with the decades. Once, believe it or not, boys wanted to be J.D. Salinger, cool and knowing. They thought they were, in fact, Holden Caulfield, the hero of "The Catcher in the Rye," Salinger's first book and only novel, now appearing on better high school reading lists.

Making reading required takes its toll on culture heroes. And writers were once culture heroes in America, people you wanted to touch, like weeping statues or movie stars.

Salinger was once considered subversive, in his wry, quiet, tweedy way, the sort of guy who stands in a corner for the whole party and then goes home with the most beautiful girl there. But how can you be subversive when your books are assigned by the sort of educational pooh-bahs whom Holden might have spotted as phonies -- a concept he taught us in an age when authenticity was the great virtue to sensitive outsiders?

In their better moments, Holden and members of Salinger's vast, epically self-conscious Glass family would have seen the phonies for what they were, but -- saints that they were -- they would have forgiven them with the ironic condescension that rang clear and cool as a tuning fork in their creator's prose.

Gone, all gone: the authenticity, the spirituality, the writer as hero, the belief that literature could save us, as a critic and prophet named Lionel Trilling said somewhere back then.

Still, for those of us growing older until we find ourselves growing old, hope lives on, and Salinger's death is a happy occasion.

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