Perhaps the most influential author of the past century died Wednesday.
Jerome David “J.D.” Salinger, undoubtedly best known for penning “Catcher in the Rye,” but in recent decades more known for being famously reclusive, succumbed to “natural causes” in his home in Cornish, New Hampshire. The news was not reported until today.
I’ll leave it to better-educated people than I to properly place the meaning and influence of Salinger’s works. I will, however, leave a few personal impressions of the man’s works and why they were and are so crucial to my identity as a lover of literature.
— Sophisticated-yet-approachable prose. With the possible exception of “Seymour: An Introduction,” Salinger proved that intelligent, nuanced, and beautiful language need not be academic, overwordy, or filled with million-dollar vocab. Reading and reflecting on the bulk of his readily available short stories represent for me the rare occurrences where a very smart author effortlessly lifts me up to his level.
(While I find “Seymour: An Introduction” masterful, its style strays from Salinger’s usual approach and feels almost academic)
— A shared universe. With the Glass family members the primary planets circling in the Salinger orrery, he brought to literature one of the things I most love about the decidedly different conventions of comic books — a connective narrative where characters appear, reappear, and show up in each others’ tales, either directly or indirectly. Even when no connecting thread to another character or story shows up in a Salinger tale, the fact that my brain is open to such a thing makes me all the more excited to read them.
— Absolutely unforgettable characters. Yes, the world loves Holden Caulfield. But it’s Franny who first blew my mind in terms of being so realized, so complicated, and so compelling. And I love Teddy. Who doesn’t love Teddy?
— Hard to find the bulk of his works. Many of his 36 published stories were never reprinted (except illegally). Further, according to deadcaulfields.com, there were nine more known to exist, seven of which are available in university archives. In addition, that site cites seventeen “lost” stories. Salinger also was sometimes quoted over the years saying that he still writes, albeit for himself.
So what’s the appeal of only having access to the tip of the iceberg? Twofold. One, in this context, it increases the air of majesty or importance surrounding of his available works, like you’re getting a peek behind a mostly private curtain. Two, it means that fans who want to delve beyond “Catcher,” “Nine Stories,” “Franny & Zooey,” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction” have a hard road to hoe. And it’s all the sweeter once one does manage to track down a copy of 1943’s “The Kit Book for Soldiers, Sailors and Marines,” so you can read Salinger’s “The Hang of It.” Or old copies of The New Yorker. Or even take advantage of the Internet’s penchant for having things available that perhaps it should not. (I admit nothing).
Salinger, the literary genius, in a sense left us long ago, with “Hapworth 16, 1924,” published in The New Yorker in 1965.
But now I guess we can formally acknowledge that nothing more will be seen from his brilliant mind, unless his estate releases in death what he was unwilling to share in life. Unlikely.
Still, I will celebrate his life and works and mark his death with the sort of thoughtful melancholy often inspired by reading his masterful prose.