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In some respects the response to J. D. Salinger's death last
month was fairly predictable. He had become famous, if not
necessarily celebrated, as much for his reclusiveness as for his
slim but magnificent contribution to American literature. The most
widely known aspect of his life was his aversion to letting any
aspect of his life be widely known. We will never know why he
stopped publishing and giving interviews. We may someday stop
caring, although maybe not. If social networking thrives as it
threatens to, his behavior may come to seem not just aberrant but
anti-human. On the other hand, it may come to seem admirable in its
fidelity to the principle of privacy as a sacred right. Salinger
had apparently never suffered fools gladly, and in the 1960s
stopped suffering anyone else.
Cover of the 1953 Signet paperback of The Catcher in the Rye
Yet despite the posthumous attention paid to his stubborn
isolation, some of the best writing about Salinger has come since
he died. Even the obituaries, focused as they were on his
out-weirding Howard Hughes, tended nevertheless to acknowledge that
he, more than anyone else, captured the spirit of teenagers in the
1950s and '60s, including those who never stopped being teenagers.
In The New York Times, the redoubtable Michiko Kakutani
wrote an incisively accurate assessment of the Salinger oeuvre.
“His most persuasive work,” wrote
Kakutani, “showcased his colloquial, idiomatic language, his
uncanny gift for ventriloquism, his nimble ability to create
stories within stories, as well as his unerring ear for
cosmopolitan New Yorkese (what he called an 'Ear for the Rhythms
and Cadences of Colloquial Speech') and his heat-seeking eye for
the telling gesture — the nervously lit cigarette, the X-ray look,
the inhibited station-platform kiss.”
The Catcher in the Rye appeared when I had just graduated
from college. My friend Al Cobine, a year behind me, had taken a
summer job in a bookstore. As a music major, he was not confident
of his literary judgment and asked my opinion of the book, which
was already expected to sell well. “I'm just not sure about it,” Al
confessed. “Do you mind taking a look?” I read a page or two. The
writing was like none of the fiction I had spent the last four
years learning to admire. That was enough. “No kids talk or think
that way,” I opined authoritatively. Al thanked me for settling the
matter. “I wondered,” he said.
Not me. Too smug to wonder, although I was dimly aware of the
book's success, I never looked at it again until a few years later
a friend who taught at a military school in Indiana asked if I
would talk to her class. I said I'd be glad to, and asked her to
tell me something about the students. “Have you read Catcher in
the Rye?” she asked. I admitted that I had not. “Well, you
should,” she said. “It's a marvelous book and the protagonist is
exactly like the kids here.”
She proved right on both counts. I became a Salinger fan, as the
rest of the world already was. Valley Forge Military Academy, where
Salinger had himself been sent as a teenager, was assumed by many
to be the model for Pencey Prep, the school from which Caulfield
was expelled. Perhaps it was, but not because it was a military
school. Pencey Prep could have been based on almost any boarding
school of that period.
How could I have gotten it so wrong? Don't ask. Suffice to say,
it was easy. One of my previous heroes was Ernest Hemingway, whose
reputation was based largely on his unerring ear: he writes
the way people talk, we all said. Actually he didn't. He wrote the
way Hemingway characters talked, and did it so convincingly that
people began taking that way—a case of life's not only imitating
art but validating it. My appreciation of Hemingway has not
diminished, but by the time I read Catcher my own ear had
improved and my acquaintance with high school kids had grown. I was
struck by Salinger's uncanny capacity for representing what they
sounded like and for making so credible what they thought and felt.
For one thing he recognized the graphics of literature,
understanding, as poets and type designers always have, the
importance of how words look on a page. Writing manuals of
the day disparaged italics, as some still do, explaining that a
properly constructed sentence does not need punctuational crutches.
But no other writer used italics as sensitively or as often as
Salinger did. They were not crutches; they were instruments of
impersonation. He had noticed that people, kids especially, often
talk in italics. If he were writing today, he would have
found a way to represent the mysterious tendency of people, kids
especially, to end sentences with an interrogative lift, when
nothing is being questioned—e.g., “I went to the mall yesterday?”
“My boyfriend called me?”
Alvarado's illustration of Holden Caulfield on the first page
of The Catcher in the Rye.
Catcher in the Rye was visually evocative in more than
the author's recognition of the value of type. The
description of Holden Caulfield was vividly graphic. I don't
remember whether there is a passage anywhere in the book in which
Holden tells the reader what he looks like. But even if we don't
know his size or shape, his attitude is so sharply rendered
as to be visual. Caulfield looked both arrogant and insecure,
confident of his ability to spot phoniness, and yet painfully aware
that the rest of the world got something he didn't get.
A man I knew in the 1960s promised to meet a friend's plane at
JFK, but found that a conflict kept him from doing it. He asked a
friend to meet the plane instead. “I can drive to the airport for
you,” the friend said, “but I've never seen Charlie. How will I
single him out?”
I suppose a simple solution would have been to write the
arriving passenger's name on a shirt cardboard, standard practice
for limo drivers and usually effective. But that was not the
solution used. “You can't miss him” was the answer. “Just look for
It worked, although Charlie was in his late 20s. I always
suspected that the instructions might have been bolstered by the
cover of the Signet paperback edition of Catcher; but it
doesn't matter. The resemblance was attitudinal, a matter of
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
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2011 AIGA Medal.
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