January 29, 2010

Someone Wonderful: Salinger


'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'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye. I know it; I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy.' -Holden Caulfield

There will be a lot of comment coming our way today and tomorrow on the eccentric life of J. D. Salinger. And it will all fade into the blathering brainfuzz of the forgettable carpers and critics and other associated craphounds of our blighted culture. They all will fail, fall, and be erased by next weeks whining. What will remain standing will be The Catcher in the Rye.

The blunt fact of the writing life is that if you can write one --just one -- book like The Catcher in the Rye, you don't have to do anything or or be anything or explain anything to anyone ever again. Period.

Posted by Vanderleun at January 29, 2010 11:11 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Read the book during basic training.


Stopped feeling like crying after a week or so.

No idea why.

Okay, some idea but don't care to examine.

Posted by: Lance de Boyle at January 29, 2010 3:14 PM

"There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know—listen to me, now—don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

Posted by: Mrs Whatsit at January 29, 2010 5:21 PM

I read “Catcher in the Rye”. I didn’t get it. A couple of hundred pages of a privileged preppy whining. Not an experience I would voluntarily repeat. Besides, Bob Uecker’s “Catcher in the Wry” was way better.

Posted by: Fat Man at January 29, 2010 5:50 PM

I read it as a college freshman, but it didn't really make much of an impression on me. Maybe if I had read it as an adolescent, it would have.

Or maybe if I re-read it now, I might see that I missed something the first time around.

Posted by: rickl at January 29, 2010 6:40 PM

Dear Mr. Vanderleun: You may have Salinger, and welcome. One good novel about adolescent angst. Perhaps 15 goodish short stories about adolescent angst with an obsession about suicide. Maybe 40 other short stories, repudiated once the adolescent pose was struck---and held forever.

I will stick to another recently dead author: Louis Auchincloss. Not for him a dribble of creativity, but a lifetime's dedication to work at his craft. Dozens of novels, some good, at least four (THE RECTOR OF JUSTIN, HONORABLE MEN, THE EMBEZZLER, THE HOUSE OF FIVE TALENTS) easily surpassing CATCHER. Hundreds of stories. A score of biography, criticism, and history books. On top of that, a parallel career as an attorney that nourished his written word. It's a sign of the values our society has that Salinger's books stayed in print continuously, while Auchincloss's are largely forgotten. It's dismaying that closely, lovingly examinations of adolescent narcissim fascinate the critical establishment, while the much wider, more treacherous world of adults are ignored. O tempora! O morons! as James Cain wrote.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

Posted by: Gregory Koster at January 29, 2010 6:46 PM

In a rambling interview, President Obama reflects upon the death of J. D. Salinger.

I know it’s nuts, Obama mused
But let’s give this a try
I feel that I have been abused
Like the catcher in the rye
A name like Holden Caulfield yet
Bespeaks of white class gold
Just how much whiter can you get
Just shows how they are bold
I’ve had the same dream Holden had
I’m standing by the cliff
To catch each wildly running lad
Yes that’s the rye field riff
The dream is just a metaphor
My people all in pain
And I just can’t forget ‘em nor
Have I a lot to gain
From pushing forward on my goal
To bring healthcare to all
And if I break someone’s rice bowl
That’s right, I’ll make that call
Right now though I am ‘specially blue
That Salinger is gone
Pierre was such a good guy too
A sprightly funny fawn
Who took good care of JFK
And gave it every try
I didn’t know he wrote, they say
The Catcher In The Rye

Posted by: Walt Erickson at January 29, 2010 8:10 PM

Good comment, Gerard, it really was.


Posted by: jwm at January 29, 2010 8:46 PM

Thank you, Mr. Kostler. Point taken. However, I did not say you needed one or the other but only that, sometimes, one is sufficient.

And besides, we have yet to find out about any posthumous Salinger. There may be some, there may be none, there might be many.

Louis Auchincloss? Certainly. A marvelous output and a fine writer. But not, I think, struck with the universal.

Posted by: vanderleun at January 29, 2010 9:16 PM

For Esme - With Love and Squalor.

Posted by: Amy at January 29, 2010 9:34 PM

I never got into Catcher in the Rye, but I read the two Glass family books over and over.

Posted by: Little Miss Attila / Joy McCann at January 29, 2010 10:17 PM

I'm with David Warren 100% on this one:


Posted by: Webutante at January 30, 2010 6:17 AM

Dear Mr. Vanderleun: Many thanks for the reminder that Auchincloss v. Salinger does not have to be all of one or the other.

I think you are right about JDS being more universal than LA. Dam near everyone wallows in the slough of adolescence. Not everyone gets past that to the sloughs---and triumphs---of adulthood.

There may be posthumous MS. My bet is they will be dreadful stuff. See E. Hemingway and ISLANDS IN THE STREAM, GARDEN OF EDEN, TRUE AT FIRST LIGHT etc etc etc. But JDS is a bit different in that he made a conscious decision not to publish. However, look for a long melodrama in the manner of "To publish or not to publish/That is the question," leading poor old Bill to drain another barrel of absinthe...

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

Posted by: Gregory Koster at January 30, 2010 11:47 AM

I have to admit having read neither JDS or LA. However, the article that Mims wrote recently on LA, made me want to read him. Sort of like your item on Pynchon, Gerard. But nothing I've seen on JDS has made want to go read his stuff.

Posted by: Eric Blair at January 30, 2010 3:37 PM

Not wonderful. Salinger was among those who led America from the wholesome 50s into the fecal hippie-bong-encrusted 60s, and Catcher in the Rye was his main instrument.

Not wonderful. Side-by-side with Zinn. The corruptors responsible for the mess we're in.

Posted by: Richard Lund at January 31, 2010 4:59 AM


you wrote:

"The blunt fact of the writing life is that if you can write one --just one -- book like The Catcher in the Rye, you don't have to do anything or or be anything or explain anything to anyone ever again. Period."


does that go for norman mailer and leni riefenstahl and ezra pound and gore vidal and sean penn and oliver stone and martin heidegger and albert speer and teddy kennedy!?!?

if someone does one great thing on the art --- or field -pp of their specialty - does that REALLY mean we have tio forgive them anything/everything else in other spheres or in other works?

i think not. io thionk that's total bullshit.

it's fair to judge someone by their total works and by their general efforts and to what they devoted themselves to besides their art.

one shouldn't put jd on a pedestal anymore than oliver stone or dw griffith or teddy jo kennedy or mailer.

Posted by: reliapundit at January 31, 2010 7:23 AM

Did I say "Forgive?" Did I say "Ignore?" I don't believe I did.

I wrote, as you quote, "...you don't have to do anything or or be anything or explain anything to anyone ever again."

And the blunt fact is that you don't.

This does not stop others from thinking and feeling what they will about the writer's life.

Posted by: vanderleun at January 31, 2010 9:38 AM

Holden, like Huck, is going to live a long long time. The controversies surrounding these characters will live with them, changing with the times. Holden, for better or worse, not only captured but helped to create the gestalt which is associated with our times. From Rebel Without a Cause to The Times They Are A-Changin', JD Salinger was/is there. It is what it is. RIP JD.

Btw, I like Auchincloss too, but not the same...though he may have more impact in posterity, he did not impact his times.

Posted by: wkimbell at January 31, 2010 4:13 PM

"or explain anything to anyone ever again"

that sure sounded like a carte blanche to me.

producing one or tow or mamny great works of art excuses nothing and we are all accountable.

if the artist pleads the fifth, fine: then we are just liberated from having to include her spin.

all the best!

Posted by: reliapundit at January 31, 2010 9:23 PM

Wow, ain't this fun?

First, I agree with you, Gerard, that Catcher in the Rye is perfect in itself. My argument,which expands on Warren's, is that the book was co-opted and made to serve the self-perceived needs of monsters. And contrary to the reliable pundit, artists don't have to justify themselves to anybody. When I sing something, that's what I think about it. Astonishing as it may seem to someone born into the age of the navel gazer, art isn't "about" anything, and if somebody tells you different it's bullshit. Art is itself. Full stop. If Salinger didn't earn the right to keep his thoughts to himself by risking his ass on the D-Day beaches, he certainly earned it by having the archaic grace to keep his mouth shut for 60 years.

Somebody earlier pointed out that it was probably necessary to read the book as an adolescent to fully experience the horror of a breakdown from within the cage of panic, and to that I would add that it would probably be necessary to read it before the existence of "Teenagers." Salinger wasn't trying to communicate to the Beat generation or the Hippies, because he'd never seen one. He wrote about one kid, alone and scared. If you were a kid alone and scared, Catcher colored the sky for weeks.

I read it in 1958, I think. Younger generations that view Catcher as an unpleasant assignment for Sophomore English need to consider that when I read it there was a movement afoot to ban it from public libraries. I have absolutely no doubt that Salinger viewed all this with a heightening of the despair that inspired it in the first place. It was just a goddam book about a weekend. It took the pathological self-importance of the Baby Boomers to turn it into a cause celebre, and Salinger just got quieter and quieter.

It didn't mean anything, it was just a book. A tiny and exquisite example of self-reflective literature, but just a book. Michel Foucault would no doubt have leapt at the chance to explain to J.D. Salinger just what it was that he meant, but it was just a book. What people made of it is no reflection on Salinger, even though the evil it engendered continues to live after him. Salinger didn't goddammit lead anybody anyplace, or haven't you all heard that he was a recluse? The same people who proved they could fuck up a wet dream in the '60s took over Catcher and made it about themselves. But it was just a goddam book.

Posted by: Rob De Witt at February 1, 2010 2:21 AM

Great comment Rob. Thanks.

Posted by: vanderleun at February 1, 2010 2:24 AM

De gustibus non est disputandum, I suppose, but I read it as a teenager: it was a book for and about whiny adolescents, and, since I was surrounded by real-life versions of the same, I didn't much see the point. It's an interesting coincidence that Howard Zinn, who had the political views of a whiny adolescent, kicked it the same week.

Posted by: Paul at February 1, 2010 10:23 AM

One memory, every time there is mention of "Catcher in the Rye", sitting at a table in Bella Pizza on Northern Blvd across the street from Flushing High School around 1960/61 reading that book and cracking up laughing. That is my only memory of that book, amazing I remember anything from that time of Robitussin AC, pills and booze but I never forgot that moment and always thinking I have to read that book again to see what the hell was so funny then.

I guess it's time to give it another read but I won't ruin it looking for something from another time.

Appropos of nothing, a recent email that cracked me up.

"The Department Of Defense briefed the President this morning They told President Obama that 2 Brazilian soldiers were killed in Iraq .

To everyone's surprise, all the color drained from Obama's face. Then he collapsed onto his desk, head in his hands, visibly shaken, almost in tears.

Finally, he composed himself and, noticing the look on everyone else’s face he quietly asked, "Just exactly how many is a Brazilian?"

This is not surprising, since he obviously has no understanding of million, billion or trillion either."

Posted by: Dennis at February 2, 2010 8:48 AM

Great comments in this thread.

IMHO: I've never read the book.. don't mean to.. found my own adolescent rebellion in rebelling against the narcissistic conformist rebels of the 70s, by reading and making things and listening to whatever great music I wanted to, not just what might upset the parents, or agree with the mass-marketed or early punker 'rebellious' tastes of my peers.

Teenhood-- now culturally extended from 12 to the early 30s for some folks-- is now become a squandering of youthful adulthood and energy and ambition, preparatory to (a) even more ingrown immaturity, or (b) a belated maturity, taking on the roles and responsibilities most of our recent forebearers assumed in their early 20s, along with child-rearing and work.

Whatever Salinger intended with CitR, just like Vatican II, the 'spirit' of the thing ran amuck in the great spasm of unfulfilled heavens-knows-what of the 60s Marxist/ utopian youth culture, so that it's hard for us to see what the writer was originally on about, writing of a depressed young man on a lost weekend.

Random thoughts...

Posted by: Binks, Webelf at February 5, 2010 11:09 AM

Your assessment of the situation is correct. Publish just one writing that everyone buys, and you need do nothing the rest of your life to substantiate your existence ever again. It doesn't matter if it is good writing. It doesn't matter if it is even legible language.(check out rap music) Just be famous for it, and you will never have to do anything again. For that matter do you even need to write the damn thing in the first place? Can anyone prove who wrote the much better story, To Kill A Mockingbird? It certainly wasn't Harper Lee, who never wrote another significant word.

There are likely tens of thousands of manuscripts from thousands of different writers that have been turned down, refused, or outright destroyed by publishers, editors, and agents who didn't feel the writing was worthy of lottery winning status by them. Imagine the depth of American literature today if those manuscripts had been published....Imagine the depth of the understanding of the human condition if they had been accessible to the common people.

Today the problem is just the same. Everyone has access to everything you do, think and say through blogs, twitts, facebooks, and trackbacks. No one is unique because we are all the same. Only those promoted by the editors, publishers and agents of the most famous are lottery winners. My comments mean no more on this page than the manuscripts I have submitted for refusals 100 times before.

No one promoted my words, so I languish unknown just like many others, no matter the value of what I say, while worthless other writings make people famous because of their connections with those who make unknowns famous.

J.D.Salinger was a prolific writing hack who got lucky with his lottery numbers. Nothing more, nothing less. Would that I were so lucky with the lottery and not have to be so bad at writing as he.

Posted by: Eric at February 11, 2010 11:31 PM