NEW YORK — J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose “The Catcher in the Rye” shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, has died. He was 91.
Salinger died of natural causes at his home on Wednesday, the author’s son said in a statement from Salinger’s literary representative. He had lived for decades in self-imposed isolation in the small, remote house in Cornish, N.H.
“The Catcher in the Rye,” with its immortal teenage protagonist, the twisted, rebellious Holden Caulfield, came out in 1951, a time of anxious, Cold War conformity and the dawn of modern adolescence. The Book-of-the-Month Club, which made “Catcher” a featured selection, advised that for “anyone who has ever brought up a son” the novel will be “a source of wonder and delight — and concern.”
photo from esquire.com
It is hard to believe that Salinger was 91, the age of my grandmother, who died in November. He was born January 1, 1919, she in July 1918.
I guess I show a certain amount of ageism. I think of how inflexible my grandmother was, constantly berating me as I grew up for not being a "lady" if I didn't sit ramrod straight with my legs crossed at all times. She had a pinched-mouth way of surveying a person, before she began her inevitable list of criticisms. She would never have written this:
"IF YOU REALLY want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them."
How could the person who wrote one of my all-time favorite books be nearly as old as she was?
Holden Caulfield was flawed, but he questioned society's rules. It's phony to say "nice to meet you" when you don't mean it. Often the world promotes the likes of his roommate--the equivalent of the teacher's pet, the seemingly affable charmer who is ultimately narcissistic. He and my grandmother would agree on one thing: Life ain't fair.
There is too much more to write with little time. I clung to the book for so long and can measure my maturity by the evolution of my responses to it. Holden Caulfield helps me remember the girl I was, frightened of what lay ahead and what lay inside. He takes me back to the place I was when I never would have suspected the life I now lead at 32 or the trouble I have had in the intervening years.
Stuck in my mind is his attempt to explain what he would like to do with his life. As he longs for something meaningful, he tells his sister:
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.
Who knows what that would have been for Holden? His teacher warned that he might be heading for a terrible fall, saved for men who "gave up looking. They gave it up before they ever really even got started."
Salinger was supposedly disappointed that his later works, which I also enjoyed, didn't garner the same attention. Or maybe he was annoyed by his fame. Or maybe both reasons made him go into seclusion. Or maybe it was something else entirely! But he did create a character who has meant so much to many people, and perhaps there are more creations tucked away in a drawer or under a pseudonym that we may yet discover. In any case, to create a character with a voice that endures for generations is a gift.
Goodbye, J.D. Salinger. It was nice to meet you.