A slice of Rye

J.D. Salinger is dead.

At least, we think he is.

I frame the above observation in this way because, as anyone knows who knows anything at all about the elusive author of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger spent more than a half-century shrouding himself in mystery. The man who penned the 20th century’s seminal bildungsroman vanished into self-imposed seclusion in New Hampshire in the 1960s, surfacing in the press afterward only to engage in legal warfare with people determined to make him more public a figure than Salinger wanted to be.

What descriptions of Salinger’s life surfaced generally depicted a self-absorbed man of mercurial religious beliefs (at various times, Salinger was a devotee of Zen Buddhism, Christian Science, spiritism, and Scientology), singularly bizarre habits — according to his daughter Margaret’s 2000 memoir, Dream Catcher, Salinger pursued wide-ranging dietary philosophies that included macrobiotics, purging, and the consumption of his own urine — and a fascination with adolescence. He maintained a reclusive existence to the degree that no current photographs of him ever surfaced during the last several decades of his life.

Basically, Salinger became the kind of person that Holden Caulfield, the teenage protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, might have grown up to be.

Like most American schoolkids, I read Catcher in an English class — Miss Johnson’s eighth-grade English class, in my case. I remember having to obtain signed permission from my parents to study the book, due to its (for its time, anyway) salty language and frank discussion of sexual topics. I’ve never felt compelled to revisit the novel in the 35 years since that class, yet I recall portions of it — several scenes, and specific lines of narration and dialogue — with remarkable clarity. That’s testimony, I suppose, to the power of Salinger’s work.

Although Catcher remains Salinger’s most famous creation, it’s the only novel (as such) that the author ever published. The remainder of his available writing consists of short stories and novellas, published almost exclusively in The New Yorker. A pair of connected stories, Franny and Zooey, were released in book form following their magazine debuts. When I read Franny and Zooey in college, I was struck by how much it reminded me — not in subject matter or style as much as in character — of a pair of books I enjoyed in my youth: Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret.

Salinger reportedly remained an avid motion picture buff throughout his life, despite the fact that he steadfastly refused to permit his writings to be adapted for the screen. (Salinger so detested My Foolish Heart, based on his short story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” that he vowed never again to let Hollywood touch his work.) It makes sense, then, that his son Matt became an actor. Unfortunately, Matt Salinger’s best-known cinematic appearance came in the title role of the execrable Captain America — who can forget the spectacle of Cap wearing a cowl fitted with rubber ears?

Rumor has it that, while he ceased publishing his work in the early ’60s, Salinger continued to write diligently. Joyce Maynard, who engaged in a much-publicized affair with the author in 1972 when she was 18 and Salinger was 53, reported having seen at least two completed manuscripts for novels during that period. At that rate, it seems reasonable to think that Salinger may have left a dozen or more books behind. It will be up to his children, I would guess, whether these unrevealed works ever see the light of day.

Me, I’d settle for a photograph.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Celebritiana, Dead People Got No Reason to Live, Good Reads, Ripped From the Headlines

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