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Four Ways of Looking at J.D. Salinger

Goodbye, Mr. Salinger.

I remember exactly where I was when I read the first three pages of Catcher in the Rye.  I was sitting outside the Potomac Library–the new site because the library had moved across the street and the old building had been turned into a bank.  I was in fifth grade, but I took the book out of the sixth-grade-and-above section because I heard some kids talking about how it had curse words in it.  It felt like a risque move for a ten year old.

It took reading it many times over the years to truly get it, but I fell in love with Ally from the first read.  Isn’t it strange to fall in love with a character who isn’t even there except for a few sentences?  But you can’t help who your heart chooses to love.

*******

My brother called me right after he heard the news about Salinger’s death.  We share a love of J.D. Salinger, Norton Juster, and Vladimir Nabokov (the last of which is easier for me to read in public and not look like a perv, but he pulls it off with aplomb).

My sister-cousin’s parents live up in Vermont, and last spring, we stayed at their house when I went up to make my pilgrimage to the King Arthur Flour Factory with Julie.  My uncle knew Salinger by the sheer fact that they both lived in the same, loosely populated area and he was a customer of my uncle’s television business.

One day, he asked Salinger what was his favourite book.  My uncle leans towards non-fiction, but figured that if one of the greatest American writers of all time loved a certain work of fiction, he might see the brilliance as well.  Salinger told my uncle that his favourite book was The Landsmen by Peter Martin*.

“Do you know it?” my uncle asked.  My husband and I are both writers and fairly well-read, especially Jewish-American literature, but we had never heard of it.  “Unreadable!” my uncle announced.  “I couldn’t see what he loved about it when he lent me his copy.”

After dinner, he pulled out the letter Salinger sent him with the book, typewritten, brief and thoughtful.  The letter read exactly like a Salinger short story, a worrisome tone from a man who wanted to make it clear that he needed his beloved copy of the book back afterward, as if he was fearful that my uncle would love it so much that he would abscond with this out-of-print, seldom-read book.

A funny observation of value.

The letter J.D. Salinger gave my uncle with his favourite book

And yet, Salinger clearly knew the worth of his words.  My uncle told me that he was still writing, squirreling away manuscripts to be published after his death, the money from which would continue to support his wife after he was gone.  He was writing for writing’s sake–taking the best part of the act, reveling in creation, and then setting it aside so someone else could deal with the circus that ensued when he allowed them to be unleashed after he was gone.

*******

We own a lot of copies of each J.D. Salinger book: two Nine Stories, four Catcher in the Ryes, two Franny and Zooeys.  I received one of my Nine Stories in an initiation ceremony for my high school literary magazine.  I took another from my parent’s bookshelf.

My favourite copy of Catcher in the Rye has an old maroon cover and forest green binding.  Back in high school, when they passed out books in English class, you signed your name on the back cover.  During my senior year, when my English teacher passed out the copies of Catcher in the Rye, I somehow ended up with the same copy my sister had read two years earlier.  It was the first time this happened and it felt like kismet to be holding the same copy that she held.

When it came time to hand them back in at the end of the unit, I pretended to put a book on the pile and lied on the sign-out sheet that I had returned my copy to the school.  I’d like to take a moment to apologize to my old high school–I probably owe you at least $5.99 at the moment.  But I love still having that copy of the book with our two names side-by-side.

*******

Salinger’s death is a strange bookend for me.  I named my first not-to-be child after a J.D. Salinger character when I was waiting to hear if I was pregnant or miscarrying.  It’s the only one I named until the twins were born.  Hearing about Salinger’s death makes me think of her (because, in my mind, it was a girl, even though it was too early to know).  It’s the end of the end, as if somehow, placing Salinger in the ground and with him all his characters, he also takes those who were named after them, the ones who are no longer here regardless.

We sometimes call my son the Bananafish, mostly because life is nonsensical and there are so many other possibilities that could have played out in regards to his existence, but they didn’t and so he is wonderfully here.  And so, there is the child who wasn’t, and the child who is, and somewhere, in between, there is a man who created characters whose names became woven through my heart and bones.

Thank you, J.D.

* And thank you to the Yiddish Book Center for helping me find Peter Martin’s name when my uncle was on the road today and couldn’t look it up for me.

Cross-posted with BlogHer

14 comments

1 Tio { 01.28.10 at 11:09 pm }

This is a beautiful post. Touching and well writen.

And it make me want to take a trip to the library, which is always a good thing.

2 Myndi { 01.28.10 at 11:27 pm }

So sad to hear of his passing. Salinger is one of my absolute favorites and has been since I first read him in the 8th grade. There are so many great books out there that I don’t often re-read much of anything, but Salinger (along with Austen and Dickens, though a completely different time and genre) is one I’ve gone back to frequently.

3 Kristin { 01.29.10 at 12:58 am }

What a touching post. I love hearing about how certain authors touch our lives.

4 Angie { 01.29.10 at 5:05 am }

I was saddened to hear of his passing. He is one of those writers that changed me. I then sort of felt this pang of selfish excitement: will we get some more Salinger books? I always felt like this career was like one of his characters, you know, a young, wildly-famous prodigy fearing rejection when his words and age catch up to each other, so he sort of committing career suicide? But what if…I always thought…what if he is indeed writing and gearing to publish when he dies and no longer has to hear people tear his work up? Now that would be something great. Love the letter to your uncle. It does sound like JDS, you know. XO

5 loribeth { 01.29.10 at 8:48 am }

Very cool!

Will I be a pariah if I admit I haven’t read any Salinger books?? I did try to read “Catcher in the Rye” when I was about 11, but I don’t remember ever finishing it. I was more into the “Anne of Green Gables” & “Emily of New Moon” books at the time, & Holden, the angry young man, seemed like such an alien creature. I suspect I would find it more absorbing/understandable if I tried again as an adult.

I kind of admire Salinger for sticking to his guns & staying out of the limelight all of these years. Such a contrast to our celebrity culture today, & people who are just famous for being famous without really accomplishing anything much with their lives ,other than being on some reality TV show.

6 Kir { 01.29.10 at 9:13 am }

I too loved my copy of Catcher, I actually went to find it last night and just hold it.
I loved this post, thank you for sharing.

7 Bean { 01.29.10 at 10:36 am }

What a wonderful story. I don’t recall when I read my first Salinger, but I’m fairly certain it was during high school. I do remember that I fell in love and quickly read all of his writing that I could. I was so sad (and still am) when I realized how little there was to read from him. I read Franny and Zooey more times than I can recall and I’m thinking it’s time to pull it back off the shelf.

8 queenie { 01.29.10 at 10:53 am }

My Salinger confession is that I frequently find myself in his neck of the woods, and I’ve often hoped that I would run into him. I never did, and I was so sad to learn he had died before I had the chance to live out my fantasy.

9 S { 01.29.10 at 12:10 pm }

I must confess, I have never read The Catcher in the Rye or anything written by J.D. Salinger.

I loved your uncle’s letter from Salinger which you shared.

10 Palemother { 01.29.10 at 1:33 pm }

What a great post, Mel. So many things will be written/said about him in the days ahead. I loved your personal notes.

Especially the glimpse of the man-as-neighbor … a guy so notoriously private, yet still willing to lend a favorite book … And especially this thought … “He was writing for writing’s sake–taking the best part of the act, reveling in creation, and then setting it aside so someone else could deal with the circus that ensued when he allowed them to be unleashed after he was gone.” I like to consider that thought. And what it says about him. And about creativity. It’s enough.

Cheers.

11 nixy { 01.29.10 at 3:16 pm }

What a beautiful post. Really wonderful.

My Confession: Though I have read Catcher a few times through out my life, I do not like the book (*pause for audible gasps*). I just find it really frustrating. I first read it in high school at some point, and thought maybe I needed to be older, and so re-read it. But no dice.

I usually won’t admit to it IRL. 🙂

12 Erin { 01.29.10 at 7:11 pm }

This post made me kind of teary. I was never insanely in love with Catcher in the Rye like most…but I adored Nine Stories with all my heart and soul. Before I was married, I wanted to name any daughter I had Esme. Unfortunately, Esme now rhymes with my last name…and she’s a Twilight character.

13 Adele { 01.29.10 at 8:44 pm }

I was rushing to teach a class when I heard that Salinger had died. A student (simultaneously rushing to my class) told me in the stairwell. It was a strange moment: both of us standing there a bit choked up. It’s amazing how Salinger spoke to people, especially people in the horrible teenage stage of life. For me, The Catcher in the Rye gave me hope that being a cynic and noncomformist was not only okay, it was preferable. It was like being thrown a life-vest. Thanks for your lovely, thoughtful post. I am looking for The Landsmen tomorrow.

14 Ruben Carbajal { 01.29.10 at 10:02 pm }

Salinger’s books are a kind of rite-of-passage; if you read it at the right moment, you’ll never be the same again. Each time I re-read Catcher, my perspective on Holden alters slightly; instead of solidarity, I now I read with worry for such a fragile kid in a world he’s not prepare to face. What an excellent post!

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