For an author who wrote every day until his death in 2010, JD Salinger published very little. Yet despite his refusal to engage with the literary world, he generated vast critical and mainstream interest – interest that spiked dramatically when a recent documentary suggested he’d approved five new books for publication before 2020.
Today – 64 years since The Catcher in the Rye (1951) was first published – we examine a little-known legacy of one of the world’s most-read authors.
To date, Salinger is still known for the resonance that his only published novel has with young readers, but at the core of his fiction sits a theme that is often overlooked – unresolved grief. Salinger’s work is rife with characters suffering through long and unresolved mourning, a theme informed by his own experiences fighting in the second world war and subsequent nervous breakdown and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Salinger’s popularity among teenage readers is well documented and The Catcher in the Rye, in addition to more than 65 million copies sold already, continues to sell around 250,000 copies each year, (perhaps due to the fact it is often prescribed as a high school text). Classrooms and critics alike have seen Salinger’s novel as exploring adolescent themes such as rebellion and isolation, and the sarcastic vernacular of its 17-year-old narrator make him instantly relatable to generations of teenagers.
If readers remember nothing else of Holden Caulfield, they remember his enthusiasm to call people “phony”. Denouncing peers for any slight insincerity, Holden’s appeal to adolescents is long attributed to his struggle against conformity. In other words, he’s a teenage hero who navigates the divide between being oneself and fitting in – a key concern for young readers.
Yet Holden’s suffering in the novel isn’t the result of ordinary angst; its source is the death of his brother, Allie, from leukaemia. Four years later, Holden is still dealing with the loss, idealising Allie (“terrifically intelligent”, “the nicest … he never got mad at anybody”) and acting like he’s still alive (“I certainly don’t enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery. Surrounded by dead guys and tombstones and all”).
Freud described melancholia as a stalled mourning where a bereaved is abnormally consumed by loss. A 1983 study of bereavement showed that people experiencing unresolved grief were less likely to have attended the deceased’s funeral. Holden could not attend Allie’s funeral, Salinger tells us, because he was in hospital after breaking the garage windows with his fists when Allie died. Teenage rebellion is there, but only as a product of grief.
Dead brothers and grieving characters are everywhere in Salinger’s fiction, notably the shell-shocked war veteran Seymour Glass who puts a gun to his temple and thereby triggers multiple Salinger stories about the Glass family dealing with his death.
Eleven years after Seymour’s suicide, his brother “Buddy” writes a reminiscence that shows countless manifestations of his unresolved grief that is strikingly similar to Holden’s. Buddy describes Seymour by stressing his fundamental extraordinariness (like he had “the intellect of a genius and the moral sensitivity and compassion of a Buddhist monk”), speaks as if Seymour is still alive and suffers physically when recalling poignant memories of him.
The nightmares of Sergeant X are based on Salinger’s first-hand knowledge of the grisly Battle of Hürtgen Forest (1944) (which a historian in the documentary describes as “a meat grinder”). The second world war is the ghost in the machine of every Salinger story – he wrote non-stop during the war and even carried six parts of The Catcher in the Rye into battle on D-DAY .
His daughter wrote about how Holden’s cries of “Save me, Allie, save me!” as he feels himself “sinking down, down, down” can be read as a soldier’s anguish on the battlefield. While “the traumas of war and death” are displaced, she notes, “their ability to destroy lives and wreak emotional havoc upon the survivors diminishes not a whit”.
Salinger rarely spoke about his time at war, save for one chilling remark to his daughter:
You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely. No matter how long you live.
However, the prevalence of unresolved grief in his fiction helps illuminate our understanding.
As a notoriously reclusive figure Salinger would no doubt resist an autobiographical reading of his texts, yet critics keenly identify the obvious and numerous parallels between Salinger/ Holden and Salinger/ Buddy. The fact remains: a younger and much less guarded Salinger himself called Buddy “my alter-ego and collaborator” on the original dust jacket for Franny and Zooey (1961), and told friends that Holden was a younger version of himself.
Unresolved grief is rarely explored in critical discussions about Salinger. His “preoccupation with dead brothers” is noted in passing, as well as the general presence of internalised trauma in his fiction – and the fact Holden is definitely grieving.
If a theme across The Catcher In The Rye and the Glass family stories has not changed, it is observed as childlike innocence, not prolonged mourning. To date there is no comprehensive study of grief in Salinger’s work, the identical experiences of Holden and Buddy or any possible relation these have to the writer’s personal history.
Salinger’s contribution to bereavement literature remains little-known, though perhaps not for long.
Among the five new books is A Counterintelligence Agent’s Diary – a novella based on Salinger’s interactions with civilians and soldiers during the second world war.
Structured as the diary of a man entrenched in the everyday horrors of war, this text likely forms a missing link between the prolonged grief found everywhere in his fiction and Salinger’s own experience in struggling to reconcile death and loss.
The publishing schedule of these five new books is still to be announced.