In memoriam: J.D. Salinger, 1919–2010

January 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Jerome David Salinger, one of the most important postwar American novelists, had died at the age of 91. The author of the novel Franny and Zooey, the novellas Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – An Introduction, and the classic short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Salinger’s literary legacy rests on a single volume: the 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, which has become a kind of standard-bearer for teenage disaffection and rebellion.

He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1961, but became increasingly famous for his reclusive nature, refusing to be interviewed by the press or to be photographed. Following the announcement of the author’s demise, humourist John Hodgman Twittered: “I prefer to think JD Salinger has just decided to become extra reclusive.”

Although in later years his mythology may have outweighed his output, it’s difficult to quarrel with the impact The Catcher in the Rye had on American letters. The iconic American publisher Robert Giroux, in a 2000 interview with George Plimpton for The Paris Review, talks about meeting Salinger and trying to sign The Catcher in the Rye:

The receptionist said, “There’s a Mr. Salinger out here who wants to see you.” I said, “Salinger? Pierre Salinger?” She said, “No, he says it’s Jerome Salinger, Jerry Salinger.” He was six feet two or three, pitch-black hair, very black eyes, looked a little like Hamlet. He was sort of shy. He said, “I can’t publish a book of short stories because I’ve almost finished this novel, and the novel has to come first.” I smiled and said, “You should be sitting here at my desk. You’re a born publisher because it’s true – short stories don’t sell as well as novels.” Then he said, “Bill Shawn has recommended you, and I’d like you to publish my novel.” I said, “What novel?” He said, “Oh, it isn’t finished. It’s about a kid in New York during the Christmas holidays.” I said, “Listen, you’ve made a contract, let’s shake hands.” So we shook hands on it. About a year later, I was in the Oyster Bar eating oyster stew, reading something, and somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, and it was Jerry Salinger. He said, “I didn’t want to disturb you, Bob, but I have wonderful news. I just finished the draft of my novel. I’ve just come from Bill Shawn’s. The New Yorker is going to devote an entire issue to it.” After he’d left, I thought, Oh, my God, it’s going to be like the publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

But it never appeared, and the New Yorker thing apparently fell through. A year later a messenger delivered the manuscript of The Catcher in the Rye to the office. It came from the Harold Ober Agency. I read it and, of course, I was absolutely riveted. I thought how lucky I was that this incredible book had come into my hands. I wrote a rave report and I turned it over to Eugene Reynal, my new boss.

Reynal found the character of Holden Caulfield “disturbing,” and the company’s eventual decision not to publish the book led to Giroux resigning from Harcourt, Brace.

In a rare interview in 1974, Salinger said that there was a “marvellous peace in not publishing.” He continued: “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

Finally I sat down on this bench, where it wasn’t so goddam dark. Boy, I was still shivering like a bastard, and the back of my hair, even though I had my hunting hat on, was sort of full of little hunks of ice. That worried me. I thought probably I’d get pneumonia and die. I started picturing millions of jerks coming to my funeral and all. My grandfather from Detroit, that keeps calling out the numbers of the streets when you ride on the goddam bus with him, and my aunts – I have about fifty aunts – and all my lousy cousins. What a mob’d be there. They all came when Allie died, the whole goddam stupid bunch of them. I have this one stupid aunt with halitosis that kept saying how peaceful he looked lying there, D.B. told me. I wasn’t there. I was still in the hospital. I had to go to the hospital and all after I hurt my hand. Anyway, I kept worrying that I was getting pneumonia, with all those hunks of ice in my hair, and that I was going to die. I felt sorry as hell for my mother and father. Especially my mother, because she still isn’t over my brother Allie yet. I kept picturing her not knowing what to do with all my suits and athletic equipment and all. The only good thing, I knew she wouldn’t let old Phoebe come to my goddam funeral because she was only a little kid. That was the only good part. Then I thought about the whole bunch of them sticking me in a goddam cemetery and all, with my name on this tombstone and all. Surrounded by dead guys. Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

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