What We Can Really Learn from J.D. Salinger
As everyone most likely knows, J.D. Salinger died this week at the age of 91. A recluse who corresponded almost exclusively with college-aged women (many of whom he would develop relationships with), Salinger was a writer ahead of his time. Unfortunately, he also got ahead of himself. He lived a full life; or at the very least, had every opportunity to.
Salinger’s body of work is influential, yet limited. Most obituaries and write-ups will flip the order of those two, which I think is a disservice to his story of a man whom so many of the great America writers of the latter half of the twentieth century cite as a primary influence.
Salinger practically invented cynical, snarky self-centeredness in the guise of intellectual prose and cultural dissemination. Holden Caufield (the protagonist and narrator of Catcher in the Rye) is easily identifiable to know-it-all teenagers overwhelmed angst and uncertainty. They were given a voice through Salinger’s work, and over the years they’ve taken over the internet, the movie industry, the television industry, and professional sports. And although they got older, they haven’t grown up. They, like Holden, haven’t yet realized that the Universe doesn’t care enough to work exclusively against their interests and owes them nothing. Yet most of those lessons and meaning that can be culled from the work has been lost; not just at the time of their initial reading, but also in hindsight.
I’m going to revisit Catcher in the Rye myself, as I think everyone else should. We should all re-read it and examine what we remember of the Holden Caufield character as opposed to what he actually is…a cautionary tale of angst and cynicism overwhelming the ability to appreciate, or even live, life. Holden does a lot of complaining and obsessing over what he believes is the insincerity and cruelty of the world around him, but in the process he doesn’t get all that much accomplished.
Unfortunately, Salinger himself put a bit of himself into the character. He truly distrusted all adults, to the point where he would only become involved romantically with young (college-aged) women. These women, he felt, had been untouched by the world around them and as such were far more pure and of good heart than evil, phony adulsts. In other words, they were emotionally immature and/or stunted.
I hope you don’t read this and think I’m just being cruel and unfair. It’s certainly not my intent to beat up on and indict a man who has passed and isn’t here to defend himself. I, like everyone else with half a brain, hold Salinger in high reverence as far as his craft is concerned. It’s just that I think his life and all the missed opportunities therein could serve as a great lesson to not just potential writers, but all human beings.
Living your life in a state of constant cynicism and distrust is a waste. Sure, you may produce a Catcher in the Rye, but you run the very real risk of not producing something even greater. In my life I’ve met, befriended, grown up and grown old with some great creative minds whose obsession over what the world is and what they feel it owes them handicapped their ability to produce great art.
I’m not saying they – or you, dear reader – should live your life as a nihilist who doesn’t let anything affect them or phase them. In fact, I’m saying just the opposite: let it affect you, let it faze you, and let it create the great work we all know you’re capable of.
It’d be nice to think Salinger simply turned his back on publicity and celebrity. But the reality is that he carried a negative and largely incorrect world view and mindset that made him a recluse, prevented him from producing a great and fuller body of work, and in the end resulted in a lonely existence. Mourn what great (little) work he did, but also take something from it.
As an addendum, check out this post from last month on Letters of Note, a blog that collects interesting and fascinating letters, post cards, etcetera. In it, Salinger writes to someone who wants to buy the rights to a film adaptation for Catcher in the Rye, and explains why he won’t sell it and why it would never, ever work as a film. Fascinating stuff.