Prof. of English and Dir. of Undergraduate Studies, Yale University
Thursday, January 28, 2010; 2:30 PM
J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose "The Catcher in the Rye" shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, has died. He was 91.
Amy Hungerford, professor of English and director of undergraduate studies at Yale University and who has written and lectured on J. D. Salinger, was online Thursday, Jan. 28 at 2:30 p.m. ET to discuss his life and legacy.
Hungerford's forthcoming book, "Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960," places Salinger at the heart of American religious thinking in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Amy Hungerford: Amy Hungerford here, happy to answer your questions about the work of J. D. Salinger and his legacy in American literature and culture.
I just don't get it: I've never understood the appeal of Catcher in the Rye. I really think it's one of the most overrated books out there. And it's not because I'm "too young" to understand what he meant to a generation -- I'm middle-aged. Also, why the Salinger hero-worship? Is it mainly because he was such recluse? Still, Catcher in the Rye isn't close to as terrible as another book that inexplicibly has tons of fans and is required reading in many middle schools -- "A Separate Peace."
Amy Hungerford: Salinger's fiction appealed to adolescent readers feeling alienated, sure, but it also introduced those readers to a virtuosic stylist. A colleague of mine commented to me this afternoon that Catcher in the Rye was the book that made him want to read fiction, period. He's kept at it now for another four decades or so.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy, I've seen your lectures on youtube (great, btw). I think what many people miss in JDS' books is the enormous humor in them...Catcher is hilarious, and F and &Z has some very funny moments...why do you think people tend to lose sight of this aspect in his works?
Amy Hungerford: I think you can lose sight of the humor given the huge questions he routinely takes on. That humor's in the details--and he never stints on those. We can SEE Franny Glass's sodden tissues and runny nose....
Durango, Colo.: Where is it written that an author, anyone really, who has one good thing to say is obligated to have more good things to say?
Amy Hungerford: You raise a worthy point: Ellison didn't publish another novel until the posthumous Juneteenth; the great and under-read Henry Roth, who wrote Call it Sleep in 1934 didn't publish again for many decades. One can think of writers who perhaps should have stopped; Norman Mailer comes to mind (anyone read The Gospel According to the Son?)
Body of work?: J.D. Salinger continued to write as a recluse. Will his work during that time be released? Who owns the rights to it?
Amy Hungerford: How we will come to read any further work Salinger produced is on everyone's minds; I wish I knew the answer. We will have to wait for his will to be read, I suppose.
Boston, Mass.: What do you think the chances are that "Catcher In The Rye" will ever be adapted into a film?
And whom do you think would do the best job, as director?
Amy Hungerford: I am sure this is a legal question about rights. How about Ang Lee? The Ice Storm would be a great precedent for how such a story could be told.
Pencey Prep: Why do you think there has been a kind of backlash to Catcher in the Rye in the last ten years or so -- it seems very fashionable for literary types to say how overrated a book it is, or that it's irrelevant to kids today (which actually got said when 'I' was a teenager, 20 years ago!). Is it just a phase, or is there something deeper there?
Amy Hungerford: Absolutely; and I confess that I found it an empty vessel for a long time. It wasn't until I read Richard Ohmann's wonderful essay on the reception of the novel, and how that reception screened out questions of social class that really are central to Holden's virtues, that I began to think more seriously about it. Ohmann's essay can be found in The Politics of Letters.
New York, N.Y.: I'm awaiting the inevitable "he was overrated" backlash, as it seems people always need to be contrarian. What's remarkable about Salinger, Catcher, Nine Stories, and F and Z for that matter, is that over 50 years later, people still read them, over, and over again. It's not a one-off read like War and Peace or Moby Dick or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where people read them to say they've read them. His books are timeless and cherished by nearly everyone who reads them, with Catcher being the most treasured of them all.
I feel like he's one of those writers who can objectively be called one of the best of all time. I don't think it's up for debate. He opened minds and planted ideas, and his writing was just as interesting as his thoughts were.
It's a huge loss, even if no one really knew him or thought of him on a regular basis. He literally rewrote the book on growing up in America.
Amy Hungerford: Along with the urge to say that a writer is "over-rated" comes the urge to say that a writer is the "best of all time," no? I am all in favor of Catholicity in reading: what Salinger had to say he said uniquely, and pushed the novel as a genre by doing so. Do we need to rate and rank? I'd rather read and think....
I wanted to be Franny: I was obsessed with Salinger's work as a high school student, and remain a devoted fan (I am now in my 40s). I thought that Franny Glass was the pinnacle of feminine, graceful angst, nervous breakdown notwithstanding. As a writer, Mr. Salinger perfectly captured for me what it was to be young. Now that I am grown, I read his works with a different eye, and see that he also captures what it is to remember youth. I have read and re-read his stories many times, and have always wished he would publish more. In this age of celebrity culture, I can understand his reclusiveness, but I always wanted more from him, and I wanted to know more about him. I'm happy he was able to live on his own terms, but selfishly I hope that some of his unpublished works will be released.
Amy Hungerford: I agree that there's elegy built into the exuberant picture of what it is like to be young. The fact that Seymour's death always haunts the characters in his stories about the Glass family builds in that sense of loss.
Cape Ann, Mass.: "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is the second best short story that I ever read.
-For me, the first one is, "The Dead."
What was your impression of this short story?
Amy Hungerford: Such different stories! I certainly love Joyce's "The Dead" more....
Washington, D.C.: Perhaps this is an unanswerable question, but do you have any idea what Salinger's motivation for writing (or actually, continuing to write) was? It wasn't fame, or money, or even the sense of human connection, since he didn't show his writing to anyone. Maybe he thought of this as absolute, pure art?
Amy Hungerford: Insofar as one can guess from the works themselves, I'd say you might be onto something with the idea of the pure art. In Franny and Zooey the art form that really shines in that novel is Vaudeville--performed not on a stage, but in the family living room. He located the stakes of art so close to the intimate places we live--in the family, in private letters, home movies.
Phoenix, Ariz.: I teach HS English...I love teaching The Catcher in the Rye. I don't have the students or time to focus on all the significant issues in the book...if you had to boil it down to 2 or 3 important issues to really focus on -- What would they be?
Amy Hungerford: I'd say voice--the style of the novel and the distinct quality of Holden's voice--and class (again, Ohmann's essay on this is fabulous, and full of usable material for a high school classroom), and maybe narrative structure. Cover those and you hit much of the aesthetic and thematic preoccupations of the novel, as well as why it came to be considered important.
washingtonpost.com: "Politics of Letters," by Richard Ohmann and published by Wesleyan )1987), is available in paperback.
Arlington Va.: Hi Amy: I will be 70 years old this coming July. So I was in the generation that really got hung up on Salinger and "Catcher In The Rye." I have read all of his books and stories many times. At first I liked Catcher In The Rye but as I got older and reread it over and over I began to notice how much anger is in the book. I think Holden says about 4 times in the book how he would like to shoot someone. What do you think of the killers like Mark David Chapman and others who have carried this book with them when they went to shoot someone? What does it also say about Salinger and the book Catcher in The Rye. I now find it way too filled with hate and anger. And disturbed people seem to find some crazy kind of code in it telling them to go shoot people. I can't think of all the other crazies that have carried this book around at this moment but believe me there are quite a few.
Amy Hungerford: A crazy person can find nefarious messages in just about any work of art; maybe it's a statistical phenomenon: because it is taught in so many high schools the book just has an exposure that is disproportionate? I agree that there's anger there--I have been thinking how anger figures in a book I think of in similar terms, Dave Eggers's Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Both these books are simultaneously generous and angry. I think that's potent. Whether one wants to read and be immersed in that emotional world at any given time of one's life is another question.
Connecticut: What are the biggest complaints of critics of his writing?
Amy Hungerford: The works can seem juvenile and masculine to the point that women readers become uninterested in them. Speaking for myself, I finally found more there, but that doesn't negate the fact that these can be flaws.
Fort Sam Houston: Amy,
Having been a young man when I first read "Catcher in the Rye", (and I'll admit I am still somewhat young at the ripe old age of 19) I found that the book actually spoke to me as a young man, wanting to rebel against the world and at the same time find a place to fit in. I wonder if there are any other books these days that can do that. I have spent my entire short life from the time I could first read to the study of works of art like Salinger's, and that being said I believe that his influnce notwithstanding, this could very well be the last work of its like.
Amy Hungerford: There are many works that do that. I am just reading a new talent on the scene--Leslie Jamison's The Gin Closet, which will be out in a couple of weeks. For women of about your age it may well speak to those feelings, though in a different voice, and I think a more generous one. Eggers is another--What is the What places such emotions in a historical context both tragic and trivial. Happy reading...
Andover, Mass.: I regard Salinger to be the original creator of the theme (that was examined, and reexamined, many times after, in literature, film, TV, and theater) of the dysfunctional family, in modern American culture.
Do you think he deserves that distinction?
Amy Hungerford: No, I think that's going a little too far. How about the Compsons in Faulkner??
Amy Hungerford: Thanks, everyone, for the lively conversation. You might be interested to see my discussion of Salinger in my forthcoming book, Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960 (Princeton Univ. Press; due out in June).
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