When The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 there was a dramatic, unpredictable and indelible change both inJ. D. Salinger’s life, and in the canon of English-language – in fact, Western – literature. The novel was an instant success, both critically and economically, it immediately turned Salinger into a celebrity and it gradually turned Holden Caulfield, the adolescent protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, into a cult figure for generations to come.
Salinger was born and raised in New York. In 1951, when he became an acclaimed star, he was 32 years old. He had been a published short-story writer for over a decade and had, finally, after seven years of mostly frustrated attempts, mottled here and there with a speck of qualified success, broken into the fold of The New Yorker magazine, for which he had been contributing regularly since the beginning of 1948. Prior to that, Salinger had published about twenty different stories, mainly in magazines such as Collier’s, Story and Saturday Evening Post. In 1941 his “Slight Rebellion off Madison” was accepted by The New Yorker. The story contains the first seeds of Holden Caulfield’s character traits, as it depicts the childish disaffection of the teenager during a night of self-destruction when he, rather clumsily, tries to convince his girl to leave the town behind and cut loose – over the phone. Holden doesn’t cut loose, his girl doesn’t listen and The New Yorker delayed the publication of the story for five years, perhaps because it did not deem its tone appropriate at a time, following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when the country’s involvement in the war seemed imminent. They would be long five years.
In 1944 Salinger was called to be part of the invasion of Europe. He was in action at the landing of allied troops along the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944 – D-Day. Fortunately – for him, first and foremost, but also for literature and, ultimately, for us – he was sent to Utah Beach. Had he been sent with the other portion of the Western Task Force to Omaha, odds are we might have ended up with another Wilfred Owen – a great literary talent, killed too soon by armed conflict. But Salinger survived the landing, campaigned in the invasion of Germany from Normandy, was part of the Intelligence corps at the US army, met Ernest Hemingway along the way, and after all that, chose to stay in occupied Germany for a period of six months, duringwhich he met his first wife. Curiously, this was also his most prolific time, appearing regularly, among other magazines, at the Saturday Evening Post and publishing as many as nine stories between 1944 and 1945.
Though Salinger is not often considered a war writer, plenty of his stories display explicit or oblique influences from his time as a soldier – not least the touching “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor”, published by The New Yorker on April 8, 1950, which deals with the physical and emotional disorders faced by a young man during, or just after, the war. Instead, Salinger is most often associated with an adolescent or juvenile inflection that is most palpably sensed in Holden Caulfield’s figure, in The Catcher and the Rye, which also gathers and reworks previous incarnations of the character in short stories such as “Slight Rebellion Off Madison”, or “I’m Crazy”.
Which is surprising, because, while Caulfield himself might be a juvenile character, Salinger’s writing is anything but – much in the same way as Herman Melville or Robert Louis Stevenson are considered writers of adolescent adventures who, nonetheless, significantly transcend the genre. From the very first sentence in The Catcher and the Rye, Salinger makes a deliberate effort both to give Caulfield an authentic voice and to make it absolutely clear that, as a narrator, the boy is unequivocally unreliable. Which is not to say he is lying – but if he is, we cannot know. And merely by questioning Caulfield’s integrity as a narrator through, not the content of his tale, but the structure in which Salinger, the writer, chooses to shape it, he already provides the reader with the tools to perform a reading of the text that goes beyond the face value of Caulfield’s words. This becomes even more evident in some of the earlier stories. One particular example that comes to mind is “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes”, published in The New Yorker on July 14, 1951, where a telephone conversation between a concerned cuckold and his wife’s lover, who is in the company of the unfaithful wife, is framed by a narrative device which comes across as overly sophisticated, self-consciously literary and altogether highly elaborate. Ultimately, however, this finely wrought frame contrasts sharply with the plain voices of both characters throughout their conversation, highlighting the literary nature of the text (not dialogue) in question.
Which is not to say that The Catcher in the Rye is misunderstood or overrated. To me, it seems a perfect literary example of the Casablanca phenomenon in film: a wonderful movie, touching yet entertaining, clever, topical and, often, even fast paced. But, the best film of all times? Really a masterpiece that merits so much credit that people sit in dinner parties regurgitating the script line by line? Peter Lorre is special, Sydney Greenstreet is always a joy, Humphrey Bogart makes you want to believe in reincarnation – in the odd case that, once, just once, you might be half as cool – and Ingrid Bergman is simply something else, but still – I don’t think so. The Catcher in the Rye is undoubtedly, unmistakably, a classic. Whether or not is the best, the most important book in American literature – that we needn’t settle her, nor just yet. What must be settled is the extent of Salinger’s legacy, and his stature in Western, and English-speaking literature.
In this sense, it would be difficult to argue against Salinger ranking high up on the top tier of whatever hierarchy might exist. Not only is his prose carefully crafted, his narrative structure deliberately astute, his dialogues uncannily natural and his intimations into adolescent angst totally credible, but also, in relation to literature as such, he must stand out – perhaps despite himself – as a direct forefather of the Beat generation. It is difficult, at least for me, to think of Holden Caulfield without thinking of Sal Paradise, the narrator/protagonist of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, who sets across America and faces one adventure after the next, just because he can, or Henry Chinaski, Charles Bukowski’s alter ego in Post Office, hopping from one compromising situation to the next, simply because there is nothing else to be done.
Legacy or not, Salinger did not cope well with the attention that came with success. For a short while he tried – but it was just a short while. As soon as 1953 he retreated into his large estate in New Hamphire, although, professionally, his career would last more than another decade. He continued to publish more sporadically, but also longer pieces, at The New Yorker; he launched a collection of previous stories, most of them published in the same magazine, creatively entitled Nine Stories; he married a second time, fathered two children and created an alternative, literary family, the Glasses, protagonists to a number of long case-studies, including Franny and Zooey, Seymour and, famously, Hapworth 16, 1924. The latter was published on June 19, 1965 in The New Yorker, in what would turn out to be his publishing requiem.
The text was meant to be published in book form some time later, but this never materialized. Indeed, little else did around Salinger’s persona, as he was seldom interviewed, photographed, or even spotted from that point onwards. His first lifetime, as a published writer, had come to an end: it had spanned twenty-five years, the most atrocious bellicose conflict the world had ever seen, a progressive rise from regional publications to universal fame, two wives, two children and then some more. Now, it was time for his private life. And so, for well over forty years J. D. Salinger lived within the closed quarters of a fortress of privacy that grew stronger, and somehow proportionally more intriguing, through the years. Speculation as to what Salinger really was like has gone on for years, and we certainly have not heard the end of it. Because if there is one thing you can be sure about, it is that, no matter how many times J. D. Salinger broke ties with the world, his lovers, his family or his characters, Holden Caulfield will forever make certain that, despite his two diametrically different lives, J. D. Salinger won’t ever die – he won’t even fade away.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S DAILY HERALD ON FEBRUARY 14, 2010.
SPANISH VERSION PUBLISHED BY RELECTURA ON FEBRUARY 7, 2010.