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Remembering J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger in 1951. (AP)

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J.D. Salinger wrote the book on teenage alienation. His novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” out in 1951, has sold 63 million copies. That is a lot of teenagers, for a lot of years, reading Holden Caulfield chasing “phonies” through the streets of New York. 

There was more. “Franny and Zooey.” “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” And then, half a century ago, J.D. Salinger just checked out. Burrowed into the hills of New Hampshire and shut the door. 

This week, Salinger died, at 91. His legacy is huge. And there may be a lot more of it, waiting to be read. 

This hour, On Point: The life and work of J.D. Salinger. 

 

Guests: 

Joining us from North Haven, Conn., is Amy Hungerford, professor of English at Yale University. She focuses on American Literature since 1945 and teaches the works of J.D. Salinger in her undergradaute course “The American Novel Since 1945.” Her forthcoming book, “Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 196o,”  will focus heavily on J.D. Salinger’s use of religion in his writing. 

And from New Haven, Conn., is Will Hochman, professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University. He’s co-author of the forthcoming book, “A Critical Companion to J.D. Salinger” and co-author and co-editor of “Letters to J.D. Salinger.” 

More links: 

Charles McGrath’s New York Times obituary.  Also from The Times, critic Michiko Kakutani’s appraisal; McGrath’s essay on Salinger’s 90th birthday, in December 2008; and Jennifer Schuessler’s piece, “Get a Life, Holden Caulfield,” from this past June.  

The Boston Globe’s obituary by Mark Feeney and Alex Beam’s appreciation

At NPR.org, you can read and listen to novelist Rick Moody’s appreciation of Salinger

The New Yorker’s website has Louis Menand’s 2001 essay “Holden at Fifty.” They’re also offering links to thirteen stories by Salinger (subscription required). 

Slate’s Stephen Metcalf calls Salinger “the great poet of post-traumatic stress.”

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  • Tim Truemper

    From reading his short stories I have often wondered how much his war experiences influenced his personal choices, i.e. to be a recluse and avoid the limelight. I often hear themes (I’m a clinical psychologist) in his writings, and echoed in his long term lifestyle choices of PTSD–suicide, disillusionment with everyday life, hyper-critical of vapid or empty existence and a preoccupation with people who are perhaps seemingly superficial (“phonies”).

  • Nate Matusick

    I read Franny and Zoey this past summer and I was unsurprised that there was more talk of Ivy League phonies talking about how good their gas mileage is. But I was startled to see an explicit development in those title characters that is felt, but not as clearly expressed in Holden Caufield. For Franny and Zoey, they really come to understand that their own criticism can be leveled at them, too, no matter how hard you try (and I’ve heard this is the jist of A Perfect Day for Bananafish, where Seymour can’t avoid his own inauthenticity).

    I have an admiration for Franny’s, Zoey’s, and Salinger’s obsessive goal, that despite it’s futility, it also seems so necessary to avoid this awful phoniness. It’s hard to deny that as a public figure, Salinger did the only thing he could do to accomplish that.

  • Jim

    his famous book, catcher in the rye, gave me much hope in my years in high school. i was not too intrigue with some classics. the book gave the first exposure of the realism genre. many people can argue that he was not a prolific writer. but his work is analogous to someone who came straight to the NFL from college, won the superbowl, and retire in the same year.

  • Patricia

    I’m old enough to have read Catcher in the Rye when it was first published. Salinger paved the way for other 50′s writers, like Jack Kerouac. I read Salinger before I ever heard of Kerouac, and I’m glad it happened that way. Salinger’s rather mild treatment prepared me for the all-out revolt of Kerouac’s work.

    I’m holding out hope that something wonderful awaits our discovery at his hand, among his papers.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I read Catcher in the Rye in the early ’60s for a high school course. For me, it slammed shut a door on a lot of the culture of the last half century. Think of A Clockwork Orange. Similarity? I look forward to what the program presents. The sheer otherness of someone’s idea of reality was my impression long ago. Sheer otherness.

  • JJW

    Recently re-read “Bananafish.” Still puzzling it out.

    Let’s hope those rumored books and stories he’s written but never published find their way to my shelf!
    JW

  • Loay

    I always much preferred Portney’s Complaint to Catcher In The Rye. Give me working class America versus fake upper crust Manhattan. The East Coast elite always struck me as having a colonial cringe (a la Europe) and is very inauthentic to the American story.

  • Susan

    I have a cat named Esme. I got her from the pound, but knew instantly where her name came from. Salinger’s stories were central to my adolescence. Anyway, after adopting Esme I went back and read “For Esme- with love and squalor” and the other stories in Nine Stories. Salinger’s quirky and warm characters retain their wonder all these years later.

  • Daniel

    I first read “Catcher” as a high school sophomore. Salinger voiced the things about my life I was noticing and lamenting, yet hadn’t actualized. For the first time I connected to a book in a profound and intimate way. The experience was even more profound because of my classmates general dislike for the book. Yes, an outsider was writing for everyone else on the outside.

    I also blame Holden Caulfield for helping me to see the harsh ridiculousness of civilization, and preventing me from falling into the ruts of an average life.

  • http://quickfiction.org Adam Pieroni

    My first thought regarding Salinger’s death was, of course: I wonder if the legends of his trove of unpublished work will ever be seen, if it exists? And then I read on wikipedia:

    In her memoir, Margaret Salinger describes the detailed filing system her father had for his unpublished manuscripts: “A red mark meant, if I die before I finish my work, publish this ‘as is,’ blue meant publish but edit first, and so on.”

  • Stephanie

    I was devastated to hear of Salinger’s death. My favorite author- used ZooeyGlass for my screen name. His books and stories resonated with me- still do. I wish we could have 9 more stories.

  • Sean

    Forget The Catcher in the Rye, let’s talk about his greatest creation, the Glass Family!!

  • David Rozenson

    “The Catcher in the Rye” lost much of its impact as I grew older, but the exquisite short stories continue to haunt me, especially ‘Bananafish” and “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” because they touch on how adolescent experiences continue to affect us as adults.

    I love this description of Muriel Glass: “She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.”

  • Todd

    Salinger’s CITR is an above average read, but I’ve never quite understood its epic status. IMHO, the mystique of Salinger’s reclusive life helped carry this work to a loftier level than it would have otherwise achieved.

  • andrew

    Dick Gordon/The Story.org did an interview with a fellow a few weeks ago that met JD. Here’s the link…

    http://thestory.org/archive/the_story_939_JD_Salinger.mp3/view

  • Marsha

    I loved Salinger’s books. Regarding his “sequestering of himself,” I wonder why this is considered the least bit odd. I mean, just because someone writes and is appreciated by readers doesn’t mean he or she would want to become a “public figure,” that he or she would feel like communicating with readers, going on television, speaking, and so forth. Why isn’t Salinger’s writing enough? I wonder, truly, why so many modern writers are so obsessed with being public.

  • http://wrinkledman.blogspot.com Jim LaFond-Lewis

    I am astounded that so many people don’t understand Salinger’s reclusiveness. He didn’t require celebrity to become who he was or write what he did. He obviously recognized the perversions and commitments of a public life, a phony life. Bravo to him.

  • Kate M

    Hello! Salinger was a great craftsman, a good writer, and had a great ear for dialoge. I know he meant a lot to a lot of people.

    I did not related to CTR–as a comment above says, it was about the privileged, male, white, upper crust, world. It did not speak to or for me.

    I think if we call something a phenom, we breath live into it as a phenom. It becomes self-fulfilling. There are so many other books that are equally or better written that are overshadowed by this one.

  • A.E.

    As a college student of ‘non-traditional’ age I was delighted to re-visit the Glass family in “Franny and Zooey”– It truly surprised me to see how his narrative and ability to touch folks in transition to adulthood holds true not only for teenagers, but also for older college students. In an age where life passes by so quickly and and the production and the study of ‘isims’ seem to be the talk du-jour it was nice to pause for a week to revisit questions about God and talk simply about the self.

  • Robert Peltier

    I did not read _Catcher in the Rye_ as a young person, so I tried to read it a few years ago as a grownup. I read for an hour or so, put the book down for lunch, and never picked it up again.

    I’ve read _Franny and Zooey_ and many of the _New Yorker_ stories, but I just never felt compelled to go back to _Catcher_.

    I think it’s a young adult novel, and I’m, alas, no longer a young adult.

    rf peltier

  • Nick Fig

    From the world class news organization The Onion:

    http://www.theonion.com/content/news/bunch_of_phonies_mourn_j_d

    Bunch Of Phonies Mourn J.D. Salinger

    CORNISH, NH—In this big dramatic production that didn’t do anyone any good (and was pretty embarrassing, really, if you think about it), thousands upon thousands of phonies across the country mourned the death of author J.D. Salinger, who was 91 years old for crying out loud. “He had a real impact on the literary world and on millions of readers,” said hot-shot English professor David Clarke, who is just like the rest of them, and even works at one of those crumby schools that rich people send their kids to so they don’t have to look at them for four years. “There will never be another voice like his.” Which is exactly the lousy kind of goddamn thing that people say, because really it could mean lots of things, or nothing at all even, and it’s just a perfect example of why you should never tell anybody anything.

  • Ellen Dibble

    On “not getting” CTR, it seems “stream of consciousness” to me to hear the readings. The references to psychoanalysis? No wonder I disconnected. I think as a teen I was photographing reality, not talking to myself about it. Perhaps other teens aren’t so much into inner dialogue either. The caller who says aren’t all teens into tackling the phoniness of adults — well, maybe not.

  • Maria Buatti

    With all respect for your guests — they are English majors. Where are the psychologist’s observations about Salinger’s choices? His penchant for young girls. He seduced Joyce Maynard, not sexually, but with charm as he touted his intelligence. She thought he kept up a continual correspondence with young female fans. I think his PTSD handicapped his virility — suicide on a honeymoon… come on, there’s an elephant in the room.

  • sean

    my favorite franny line is when she tells zooey that going bohemian is just another way of conforming. Really tells a story

  • Amy Beckwith

    I was one of the many Salinger devotees who couldn’t help but emulate him in my own writing, as others have commented…I’ll always remember my college English professor, Daniel Keyes, the author of ‘Flowers for Algernon’, calling me on it in one of my particularly obvious passages, complete with italics for emphasis. But once Salinger’s voice is in your head, it stays there. And I have noticed that’s true for my 17-year old as well.

  • Timothea Frost

    I was one of those made to read Catcher in the Rye when I was in 7th or 8th grade at a NYC prep School. And I HATED this book. I found Holden whiney and annoying. I think this is a problem with so many “classics” that we force children to read. There are so many “great” books that children who don’t have enough life experience to appreciate them.
    I am going to dig it out and try to read it again.

  • http://siskiyousports.net Stanley Krute

    I never read Catcher in the Rye. Well, I read the first page, and then decided it was not for me. The main character immediately hit me as a whiny spoiled jerk.

    I never went back to the book, to try it again, as I learned more about the writer. Frankly, he did not seem to like people, and appears to have treated the women in his life terribly. Holden Caulfield grown up, or more precisely not.

  • Ray Mainer

    My whole family agrees that Catcher in the Rye was one of the most boring, useless, meaningless books we ever had to read. Caufield was a spoiled whiny brat, who was too wrapped up in his own head. I suspect that most of the copies of the book were sold to poor high school students who were forced to read it.

  • anon

    Didn’t like the book; its narrator’s sense of entitlement,position in society, and gender offended my nascent feminist sensibilities, ie who wants to hear a privileged boy complain when the world will take care of him, as a white man in America?

  • JS

    I first read “Catcher” when I was about 35, and found it — as the professor said she did at one time — whiny. I honestly think I would have felt the same way if I had read it as a teenage girl. In that sense, I felt Salinger was writing for a young male audience, one, perhaps, that Salinger himself had not moved on from. This is a book that needs context and background to appreciate, but its mythological status stands within its genre, in my mind.

  • Todd

    “Didn’t like the book; its narrator’s sense of entitlement,position in society, and gender offended my nascent feminist sensibilities, ie who wants to hear a privileged boy complain when the world will take care of him, as a white man in America?”
    Posted by anon

    Who’s whining now?

  • Ellen Dibble

    AE wrote: “As a college student of ‘non-traditional’ age … it was nice to pause for a week to revisit questions about God and talk simply about the self.”
    Note, AE said “nontraditional,” which could mean anything over 21. Perhaps at any age, if one has overdosed on “isms,” as AE puts it, it is a kind of oasis to read talk of self and of God, which might be any novel, I suppose.
    But to listen to Holden Caulfield carry on about self and God — I have a rather permanent impression that some people, I’d rather let them deal with those issues outside my frame of reference. Privileged people, especially, as noted above. I’m thinking of a broadcast on NPR yesterday about the three sorts who turn into terrorists, those idealists who can’t stand the oppression of others, those who have been oppressed, and the “lost souls,” who want to be connected and make a difference (and find themselves hiding in the Hindu Kush).
    I felt about Holden Caulfield the way I feel about the Saudi and Egyptian drop-outs who are and were privileged, and who get beyond the phoniness of an overprivileged past and latch onto what they see as not phony, and insistent upon it.
    Someone quoted Franny to Zooey to the effect that bohemianism is another kind of conforming (Sean did). Here is another kind of rebels with conviction standing up to phoniness?
    Sorry. But again, I’d like to think that someone can navigate their brainwaves and settle things down, but it sounds a bit like the seething entitlement of the next plutocracy or patriarchy. Both in Salinger and elsewhere.
    I don’t know. And I had no idea at age 16 or 17 how that could be confronted. Catcher in the Rye did pose the question. It was a bit derailing.

  • Gloria McMillan

    Howard Zinn is widely credited with opening the eyes of Americans to their nature and history. Zinn gets honors for teaching Americans to think critically about themselves.

    While this is true, I believe that Salinger opened the option not to aim for “upward mobility” during a very acquisitive, conformist period in our history. Being gifted AND refusing the rat race is largely underrated in assessing Salinger’s legacy to us.

    Before Salinger, there was a niche in a few large cities (NY, Chicago, San Francisco) for the intellectual. After Salinger, an intellectual with critical detachment could crop up anywhere: in small towns, in steel mill towns, anywhere. These were the youth who read Catcher and (more so) _Franny and Zooey_ who later went on to challenge most of the worship of money and conformity in the 1960s. I think that both Zinn and Salinger formed the people who changed our national outlook, yet fiction is not thought as such a catalyst because this is unpopular to do.

    Hope Salinger goes on inspiring us…

  • Tim

    Interesting note (this is a psychologist speaking) that both JD Salinger and Howard Zinn who died the past two days were WWII veterans who served with distinction–and both were influenced by the war in ways that influenced their future writings.

  • David Rissmeyer

    I read Catcher in the Rye a year after my mother died in a car accident in which I had been a passenger–age 14. I completely identified with Holden Caulfield throughout high school, thinking my fellow students were “phonies.” In our senior year, we were required to read Catcher and my co–students all thought Holden was crazy, which didn’t do my depression any good.
    I also read Franny and Zooey (along with all his other books), and was practicing meditaion while in high school. I had been alienated from Christianity after my mother’s death, and the Jesus Prayer, in F&Z, became a mantra for me, which evolved into a song. I would sing the prayer over and over, while hiking or driving. I’ve been doing this over the past 30 years, during which I renewed my Christian faith (partly, I’m sure because the Jesus Prayer helped me see that Christianity can be a Western Culture form of Buddhism). I only finished the verses to The Jesus Prayer earlier this week. Funny how things tend to converge and juxtapose. Perhaps I was tapping into Salinger’s last few broadcasts of his consciousness!

  • http://www.filipinoboston.blogspot.com AKILEZ

    What book killed John Lennon?

  • Todd

    “What book killed John Lennon?”
    Posted by AKILEZ

    A paperback. ;)

  • Brett

    Hey guys, books don’t kill people–people kill people! And, if books were outlawed, only outlaws would have books!

  • Brett

    I read CTR when I was about 13 or 14; Franny and Zoey about a year later. I read a book of his short stories I think my senior year in HS…As I remember, I liked F+Z and the short stories better than CTR. Salinger was a decent writer; some writers from that era have stayed in popular consciousness, some have not. It is difficult to predict which writers will endure. I see CTR as a YA novel; in that respect perhaps it was a first in terms of a “post-modern” book directed at adolescent angst (and I’m sure more than a few teenagers going through a difficult period found some kindred spirit in Holden Caulfield). I do remember not liking the first-person narrative style in which it was written.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Gloria posted: “I believe that Salinger opened the option not to aim for “upward mobility” during a very acquisitive, conformist period in our history. Being gifted AND refusing the rat race is largely underrated in assessing Salinger’s legacy to us.” She refers to opening specifically an opportunity to be an intellectual “with critical detachment,” “in small towns, anywhere.”
    I’ve been thinking about this. The beat generation, I believe, was seeded in New York City after World War II, so by the time the Vietnam War was in full blast and the social movements of the ’60s were in full swing, and the idealism undergirding protests and marches and sit-ins, “moratoriums” was marking a generation (motivated by the fighting in Vietnam, and the civil rights movement, women’s movement, later gay rights) and the in thing to do was dropping out, and a sort of counterculture movement came into being, “flower children” and conscious-changing of all sorts including drugs — well, Catcher in the Rye did not seem to be the one who “opened the option.” There were other writers, other parts of culture.
    But I think Gloria might be right. The beat or hippie culture already had voices, plural, of rebellion and dissent. I think of Elvis Presley as the first to cut through the logjam of conformity, daring to be shocking and actually become successful because of it. There was sort of an identity crisis across the land, as in teenagers: to conform and be accepted? Or to be a differentiated self, “cool” in being off-beat. The wartime generation had gone lockstop and expected the ’50s children to do the same. Yet without the war, this makes no sense. Men were probably walking around in states of post-trauma, and what I registered this as was empty suits, as they say nowadays. Gray flannel suits. Salinger was talking about phonies, fakes. Yet he grew up before the war. So maybe he was replaying his adolescence through the lens of a peacetime nation (the dues a soldier maybe has to pay after certain traumas), and came up with Catcher in the Rye.
    Maybe the Greatest Generation, those who did not pay those dues of psychic disintegration and rebuilding, those who did not replay their adolescence through some sort of breakdown, ended up leaving that crashing into the system, the authority, etc. — leaving that piece of business to the next generation (some of the baby boomers who read CTR and found ourselves defined and liberated by it).
    Maybe it was a generation, not an age of young adults, who took the book so to heart. Obviously for women, the historical challenges were different.

  • Joseph Kralich

    As a combat veteran and one with a BA in English and an MA in psychology, I believe tha Tim Truempert has noted something that is not often suggested about JDS: his PTSD. JDS served in the CIC,Counter Intelligence Corps
    with the likes of Henry Kissinger, composer LeRoy Anderson and many who ended up starting the CIA.

    JD Salinger landed on Utah Beach hours after the first wave on June 6, 1944. What he experienced in the next year is seldom depicted in his biographies. I look forward to reading and re-reading his works. Now that I know that he besides being a fellow combat veteran, like me had PTSD.

    Joe Doc

  • Ellen Dibble

    Thank you, Joe, for that post. I can dissolve into the import, tingles washing back and forth like waves. There is so much some of our fathers took to their graves with them. For all I know my own was in CIC till just before I was born.
    I try to reach out; records of soldiers burned down decades ago; there are so many slammed locked doors. And then here is this author who maybe wrote leaving a legacy that opens all those doors. Who knows. And some of us can get beyond the stand-off between one generation that says “We are led, we go together; we obey”; and a generation that says, “We are led astray; we have to disagree among ourselves in order to find our way again.”
    In other forums when young peopls posting write that after a certain generation dies, then we can elect representatives who will not engage in stonewalling, that such concerted action is antiquated, I think of this.

  • Brett

    Ellen,
    I enjoyed your 1:05pm comment from today a lot! Maybe it WAS that CTR spoke to a generation. There was so much of a growing need/desire for the generation first exposed to CTR to transcend the societal constraints of the day.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Hi, Brett. By the way, my station is cutting off the second hour of OnPoint (I learned yesterday), starting Monday. The competition seems to be an hour of BBC pushing another program into the slot. So I’m enjoying a second-hour to the max while I can. So I’ll do a feint and set up my second wi-fi computer and listen on-line through that other computer’s audio. It’s complicated. I have five keyboards and four monitors in front of me right now, even without the added audio. Really, no time. Watch me vanish some.

  • Joseph Kralich

    Thanks Ellen JD actually knew Hemmingway in France after D-Day, JD gave him a copy of his latest short story from the Saturday Evening Post and they met each other often in the next month after the Liberation Of Paris.

    Hemmingway is the classic American author with PTSD, we have had many, many others since our Civil War poets, a with the English writers of WWI and WWII.

    I met Hemingway in his final years in Key West, my mother knew him well, I was but a young lad in the 1950′s.

    Trouble is those that really suffer in each generation seem to turn inward, isolation and thenchange seldom comes.

    The 60′s gave PTSD to the Vietnam vets, all the civil rights workers and well most of the Black community in the south and elsewhere was terrorized.

    My family had PTSD in and after WWII: my father, his brother “Uncle Eli” was already PTSD by 1943, my mother a nurse was also the same: to many wounded and maimed soldiers. None stopped me from enlisting after ROTC in the Army.

    Though I’d write the GAWN: great American War Novel.

    JD Salinger did that theme one better – he wrote what he did and we are still examing his great work.

    God Speed “JD”,

    oh, I also ended up in a rural area in Colorado and never much joined in the last 40 years of society.

    Joe “Doc”

  • Ellen Dibble

    Joe, I hear you about turning inward and PTSD. And I hear you about your aspirations in writing and your training in psychology. It’s one thing to write like an angel and turn out the Great American this or that. But I can tell you that there are things I wish my father had written about, however haltingly. Apparently he thought it was unAmerican to open up at all. He wouldn’t even go to Memorial Day parades. We all stayed home those times. Once in a while if he fell asleep while reading to his children he would slip into sleep-talking and we would listen up. But it wasn’t very revealing. I don’t actually look to novels and films to uncover what I try to reach for.
    Specifically I wanted to know about his platoon (in the last months of the Okinawa campaign, his team), and I was certainly curious what became of his military responsibilities after that campaign, somewhere in Japan. And I bump up against a kind of lockdown. Don’t ask, don’t tell. I’m not sure at this point who would end up being hurt by understanding. The decades of maintaining the isolation, the lockdown, is significant to me too.
    If you have outlines that have matured like good wine in your consciousness over time about your encounter with war and its aftermath (JD Salinger, his withdrawn life and all), let me suggest to you maybe the shaping up of short stories encapsulating these matters deserves your personal touch, if you haven’t done so already. The children of veterans (and other traumatized people) may thank you, among others.

  • Jake Fegan

    Our common fondness for Catcher In the Rye helped spark a connection between my future wife and me when we first started seeing each other.

    My first son is named Holden.

    This book will always have a special place in my life. Thank you J.D. Salinger.

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