J.D. Salinger: the outsider everybody wants to get to know

The author of The Catcher in the Rye wanted privacy – but that hasn’t stopped biographers and memoirists delving into his personal life. Rakka

More than 60 years after The Catcher in the Rye was first published, and four years on from his death in 2010, American author J.D. Salinger continues to divide people.

He even divides some people from their younger selves. Many who identified with Catcher’s 16-year-old hero Holden Caulfield as teenagers judge the book more harshly later in life.

The story of a cynical yet sensitive teenage misanthropist whose only career ambition is to rescue children from adulthood, Salinger’s best-known work seems to have as many detractors as champions these days. Indeed, it is becoming fashionable to point out the flaws of its hero. To champion the book uncritically as an adult is to risk appearing immature, of failing to outgrow the pains of adolescent angst.

Everyone wants to know Salinger

Greater controversy surrounds the author himself.

If you’re reading this piece about J.D. Salinger, chances are you’ll already know something about his lousy childhood and how his parents were occupied and all that David Copperfield kind of crap (as Holden puts it). If you don’t, then you can consult one of the several Salinger biographies that have been published in recent years.

These include Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life (Random House, 2011), Thomas Beller’s J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist (New Harvest, 2014) and David Shields and Shane Salerno’s bestselling Salinger (Simon & Schuster, 2013), published alongside their documentary film of the same title.

J.D. Salinger. EPA/FILES/Shutterstock

They’ll tell you about his patchwork college career, his grim war years, his turn to spiritualism, his serial relationships with much younger women and his legal battles to keep his life from public view. Famously reclusive and infamously eccentric, Salinger published nothing from 1965 up until he died aged 91 in 2010, but this has not stopped the biographers.

Shields and Salerno’s work (both book and film) was widely criticised for lazy scholarship, indulgence in pop psychology, sensationalism and for treating Salinger’s fiction as autobiography. Reviewers agree on one thing: Salinger would have hated it.

Shields and Salerno did cause a stir when they announced that five previously unseen Salinger works would be posthumously published between 2015 and 2020. These “new” works would include a 1962 story resurrecting Holden Caulfield.

The private life of J.D. Salinger

Another new addition to the Salinger boom is Joanna Rakoff’s brush-with-fame memoir My Salinger Year (Bloomsbury, 2014), in which the author recalls her time working for Salinger’s literary agent. The book’s bubbly, naïve tone is strangely reminiscent of a romance novel – with the mysterious Mr Salinger lurking in the background like an incongruous Christian Gray figure.

What was undeniably fresh about Salinger’s best fiction was its voice — some credit him with inventing the teenager in literature — but the sentiments in the memoir can be as conventional as the prose. Consider, for example, how the gushing Rakoff describes how she devoured Salinger’s works in a single weekend:

I loved them, of course. They were brutal and beautiful and true, yes, but they also spoke directly to everything I knew about the world, everything I loved and believed.

Those seeking insight into Salinger’s private life would be better off reading his daughter Margaret A. Salinger’s Dream Catcher: A Memoir (Washington Square Press, 2001).

Classic Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye. samhsloan/Flickr

The Catcher in the Rye is that great thing: a “must-read” modern classic that has the virtue of being short. Many will remember the book’s distinctive narrative style long after they have forgotten its plot. “I have a lousy vocabulary,” Holden tells us, but his idioms are infectious, with his favourite colloquialisms “goddamn”, “lousy” and “crumby” recurring ad absurdum (“crumby” occurs eight times in one paragraph about sex).

It is a voice that invites identification, seeming to speak directly to the individual reader; journalist Brigid Delaney recently recalled how “as a 15-year-old reading him for the first time, he seemed to know me”.

While this is no doubt one reason why Catcher has sold upwards of 60 million copies since its first appearance, there is irony in millions of young adults relating to a hero who is supposed to be an outsider. How can Holden be misunderstood if everyone understands him?

Holden Caulfield isn’t really enough of a rebel to be a rebel without a cause (he likes telling the reader what he couldn’t be bothered doing). And let’s face it, most of the things that bother Holden are what we now call “first world problems”.

American comedian Moshe Kasher invites us to contrast his experience in the title of his 2012 memoir Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16. Having the time to worry about your emotional authenticity may be a bourgeois luxury.

Salinger’s readers

On the other hand, Salinger himself had experienced more than his fair share of horror during his service in the second world war. Catcher’s first six chapters were drafted in the build-up to D-Day. An increasingly popular view is that Salinger’s war experience was the absent cause of his best fiction: for instance, novelist Jay Parini asserts that “[Salinger] was trying to cleanse himself. His work was one of expiation.”

Salinger’s work has also been linked to violence through some of the fans it attracts.

Notoriously, John Lennon’s murderer Mark Chapman carried a copy of Catcher in which he had written “To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement”. The antisocial manifesto of 22-year-old mass shooter Elliot Rodgers has also been repeatedly compared to Salinger’s work, however unfairly.

Privacy for novelists

If Salinger’s case is anything to go by, the best way to court literary celebrity may be to shun it.

Other cases support this conclusion. Would anyone have the faintest interest in a photo of Thomas Pynchon were he not so camera-shy? That J.M. Coetzee did not attend ceremonies for either of his two Booker Prizes does not seem to have hurt his sales figures.

Cult followers of reclusive writers are perfectly capable of creating their own legends to redress the dearth of actual material – the rumour that Pynchon and Salinger were the same man is among the best known. Another rumour had it that Pynchon was the Unambomber.

Salinger could be an adoring fan himself, it turns out. Although seemingly fearful or resentful of the groupies his own work attracted, the author wrote an admiring letter in 1972 to the teenaged author of a smart New York Times essay “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life”.

Not only did the author, Yale fresher Joyce Maynard, write back, but the two soon embarked upon a romance (never mind the age gap). As Tom Shone writes, “Salinger was a genius of immaturity” in his fiction, and it would be easy to make a link between this and his preference for teenaged lovers.

That genius for immaturity may also be what makes his work so relevant to a generation of 20 and 30-somethings who are frequently accused of being underdeveloped “kidults”, caught in the rye of an extended adolescence.