J. D. Salinger, Con Artist
A few weeks ago, emboldened by alcohol and dubious company, I attempted to strike up a conversation with one of the tattooed waitresses at a local bar. Having discovered that she was an English major, I planned a pithy yet insightful discourse on literary modernism and the blurred distinction between high art and popular art. It was late, and I’d been drinking, so what came out was “I like J. D. Salinger.”
She was not impressed. I then proceeded to spill beer on her foot.
Even disregarding my limited social graces, J. D. Salinger is a difficult writer to talk about. While Catcher in the Rye is a fairly accessible novel, many of the Glass family stories, like Seymour: An Introduction and A Perfect Day for a Banana Fish, are esoteric and odd. His last published story, Hapworth 16, 1924, is a rambling, structureless (and more than a little indulgent) epistolary composition about literature, service to God, and a seven-year-old’s attraction to his pregnant camp counselor and sense of his own inevitable death.
Perhaps most frustrating for scholars (or a drunk guy in a bar) attempting to talk about Salinger is the simple fact that he published so little. One novel and thirty-or-so published stories represent the entirety of the author’s body of work. It is nearly impossible to solve the mystery of J. D. Salinger when he has left so few clues behind.
This all begs the question: “Is J. D. Salinger famous for the books he published or the books he didn’t publish?” On the one hand, Catcher in the Rye was a critical and commercial success. The man was undoubtedly “famous” at the time he stopped publishing.
On the other hand, the mythology of J. D. Salinger was cemented by his uninterrupted seclusion. During the almost five decades that J. D. Salinger lived in a cabin in Cornish, New Hampshire, he was, by his very absence, irrevocably etched into our cultural memory. J. D. Salinger would have been a renowned author, whether he secluded himself or not. But would he have been a legend?
Reclusive solitude is, ironically, a very public act. The more he withdraws, the harder we look for him. The recluse, with his isolation, seeks to mirror God’s silence. His absence is a daily reminder that he was once present, and while he continues to perceive the world, we can no longer perceive him. In this respect, the recluse is not unlike Tom Sawyer, hiding in the rafters, watching his own funeral and marveling at how much the world will miss him.
In some ways, I suspect that we’ve been had, that J. D. Salinger knew what he was doing all along. After all, he announced his departure from the literary scene (and the world) long before he executed it. In Seymour: An Introduction, his most autobiographical character, Buddy Glass, decries the undergraduate students of literature who will make the inevitable pilgrimage to his door. The specter of Buddy again appears in Franny and Zooey, and there Zooey must compensate for his brother’s absence by impersonating him over the phone. Distance, absence and resistance to communication would become part and parcel of the Salinger legend, and he built this legend into his own writing.
After all, nothing diminishes the presence of an author like his daily and public failure to deliver the goods. How much more highly would we regard Joseph Heller if not for the ten-year wait for his ultimately disappointing second novel? Is Don DeLillo held in higher esteem after the publication of Cosmopolis or Point Omega? Perhaps Salinger’s life-long seclusion was a particularly clever piece of social legerdemain, a marketing ploy executed by someone with an astute understanding of the ways in which an author’s reputation is built (and destroyed). Perhaps Salinger is such a towering figure because we never had to endure the disappointment of watching him fail.
However, one can hardly have blamed him. Every foray into the public eye ended in spectacular disaster for J. D. Salinger. Both his daughter and ex-girlfriend wrote “tell all” books about him. Joyce Maynard, the ex-girlfriend, also once auctioned fourteen of the author’s love letters to her. Mercifully, they were purchased by a philanthropist who then returned the letters to Salinger. Seclusion helped to secure Salinger’s place in American popular mythology, however, the man certainly had a few good reasons to wish to be secluded.
Franny fumed to her brother, “Phooey I say on all white-shoe college boys who edit their campus literary magazines. Give me an honest con man any day,” and Salinger’s disappearance may well have been a con. Forty-five uninterrupted years of not publishing garnered more media attention than any book tour ever could. But J. D. Salinger’s commitment to isolation was genuine; despite reports that he continued writing during his decades of absence, he never published another word. A con yes, but an honest con.
J. D. Salinger was a melancholy giant of American letters. In the hundreds of newspaper articles with intrepid titles like, “In Search of J. D. Salinger,” it is striking that few self-proclaimed fans ever expressed a simple wish for this very talented, very troubled man’s peace of mind. “A Baudelaire’s poem is not worth his grief,” said Jack Kerouac. “I would have preferred the happy man to the unhappy poems he’s left us.”
Personally, I wish we could have just left the poor guy alone.
Jason Schwalm is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. His academic writing can be found in the Journal of Animal and Environmental Law and the Ohio Northern University Law Review. Having recently graduated from law school, he busies himself by reading a shelf full of long-neglected books during the time he creates by not studying for the bar exam. Contact Jason at jasonschwalm [at] gmail.com.