Monday, February 01, 2010

Did J. D. Salinger go to Heaven?

J. D. Salinger is dead at 91. He is most famous for Catcher in the Rye, a book about teenage angst and alienation. Several commentators have said it is also about the protagonist's "loss of innocence," but that is clearly an overstatement, since there seemed little room in Holden Caulfield's personality for anything but cynicism and self-consciousness.

It's always hard to determine how much a cultural artifact influences the culture and how much it is influenced by the culture. Catcher in the Rye, like so many other things, seemed to share in both. There was obviously an audience for it, although one wonders how much of its support was confined to the intellectual elites who spend the time they occupy in our important cultural institutions undermining the authority of the institutions from which they draw their livelihood. For such people, Holden Caulfield is a hero, rather than a cautionary example.

That would at least explain why the New York Times thought so highly of it when it came out.

Whatever it is that produced the book, it obviously had some influence on the rest of us. I remember someone once pointing out--I think it was George F. Will--that the first time anyone ever appeared before the public (albeit in Caulfield's case it was in the textual mode) with a baseball cap worn backwards was Holden Caulfield. It was a fitting expression of the alienated arrogance that characterized Caulfield--and those who now gush effusively in appreciation to Salinger for creating him.

I don't think I have ever heard anyone I knew say they actually liked the book. I didn't like it when I read it in high school, and I don't remember any of my classmates who did either. But it was a work which has taken its place in the canon of literature maintained by those who don't believe in canons of literature. In fact, the very idea that Holden Caulfield, a scourge of the adult establishment, should be idolized by the very adult establishment he railed against is an irony too delicious not to take notice of.

Leave it to the Onion to capture this irony perfectly:
CORNISH, NH—In this big dramatic production that didn't do anyone any good (and was pretty embarrassing, really, if you think about it), thousands upon thousands of phonies across the country mourned the death of author J.D. Salinger, who was 91 years old for crying out loud. "He had a real impact on the literary world and on millions of readers," said hot-shot English professor David Clarke, who is just like the rest of them, and even works at one of those crumby schools that rich people send their kids to so they don't have to look at them for four years. "There will never be another voice like his." Which is exactly the lousy kind of ******** thing that people say, because really it could mean lots of things, or nothing at all even, and it's just a perfect example of why you should never tell anybody anything.
Maybe that's why Salinger became a recluse, spurning the literary establishment that lauded him. If so, maybe he made it to Heaven. Hell for him was here, having to listen to these people.

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