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

By Henry Allen
Friday, January 29, 2010; A23

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.

The manuscripts: There are said to be novels, stories, maybe even haiku -- Salinger brought haiku to our attention, never dreaming that they would become banal, refrigerator poetry brought home from school. These manuscripts are in bank vaults or salt mines or someplace safe from the clamoring crowd, it is said.

Does he become America's Proust, with endless chronicles of the Glass family, some of whose children, notably Waker and Walt, had yet to come on stage when Salinger stopped publishing?

One hears of a war novel and thinks of his finest short story, "For Esme -- With Love and Squalor," about a sensitive, ironic, condescending but forgiving soldier whose nervous system is shattered by combat, as Salinger's seems to have been, in World War II Europe.

Could a whole novel be that good? If so, if so . . .

On the other hand, his last published story, called "Hapworth 16, 1924," was a pretentious, self-reflexive slog of the sort you might expect when a writer creates a 7-year-old genius-saint character, Seymour Glass, who writes a 25,000-word letter from camp.

The story is not about the letter; it is the letter.

Even in 1961, when Time magazine was putting Salinger on its cover, the Glass family saga was getting a little tiresome, and it would get more so, to the point where we, his faithful readers, found ourselves forgiving Salinger, rather than Salinger forgiving us.

Salinger had gone out of his way to meet Hemingway during the war, and Hemingway was said to have called him a "helluva" talent.

Hemingway was a writer who made unhappiness beautiful. Salinger took it a step further -- with the same uncanny ability to evoke the world his characters move through, he made it a virtue.

Oh, how I needed this reassurance when I was 12 or 13. (I'm 68 now.) One day, I was looking at my parents' bookshelves and asked about that odd title.

"It's too old for you," my mother said with a tone bearing not a little ulterior motive.

That night, after my parents had gone to bed, I turned on my light and started reading.

"Catcher" got me with the first line, and I became a devotee, newly coined from the dross of adolescence into the gold of irony and self-consciousness. I wasn't just agonized with my despairs. I was a member of some order of righteous adolescence, a kid standing in the corner and watching the phonies at the party.

I could go on, but I'll take caution from that first line: "If you really want to hear about it . . ." You don't, of course, because you may well have your own Salinger story to tell.

We can hope, in the name of redemption, both his and ours, that Salinger has his own stories waiting for us, at long last.

Henry Allen, who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000, was a Post editor and reporter for 39 years.

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