The Salinger Legacy: Seeing Fiction

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 Signet paperback edition of The Catcher in the Rye

Cover of the 1953 Signet paperback of The Catcher in the Rye (see more covers here).

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?”


First page from a later edition of The Catcher in the Rye, featuring an illustration of Holden Caulfield.

Artist Carmela 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 Holden Caulfield.”

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 posture.