Feb 17th 2010

‘Terrifying’ Narcissism: J. D. Salinger’s Legacy

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

How will we remember J.D. Salinger? The painfully reclusive author of the monumental work on childhood alienation The Catcher in the Rye (1951)? A rather cranky voice for silenced youth? Certainly, many adolescents who opened the pages of the novel to the views and sentiments of the sixteen-year old Holden Caulfield were left in awe at how their world had been distilled into one volume of print. 'I read it till dawn when I finished it,' recalled Richard McDonough in a letter to the Christian Science Monitor (Feb 3), a tender fourteen when he first cast eyes on it. 'It was an epiphany.'

There was little clue that he might turn out one of the twentieth century's most enduring literary works. The appeal of the work has been international. Despite its very American focus, it has been translated into 30 languages, selling more than 65 million copies worldwide. But his early years held little promise. He was a mediocre student, notching a series of poor grades at school, and an expulsion from the private school, McBurney. He lasted a mere year at New York University. Even after leaving for Europe on a trip his father financed, in the hope that his son might achieve worldliness through language and a better understanding of the luxury food business, Salinger proved non-responsive and unproductive. His letters from that period in the 1930s reveals a striking lack of political awareness. He cared little for a Europe lurching towards war.

His return to New York, and the eventual enrolment in a night course at Columbia University, proved a revelation. By the time he was 21, Salinger could boast receipts from stories published in Esquire and Collier's, a measure largely due to the encouragement of his teacher Whit Burnett. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Salinger gave thought to what would become his masterpiece, a semi-autobiographical portrait of adolescent years featuring the protagonist Holden Caulfield. In the meantime, the effects of war devastated him, engendering a nervous breakdown and a period of hospitalization. A failed marriage to what was claimed to be a low ranking Nazi official, Sylvia, did little to help his already tattered nerves.

The Catcher unnerved and inspired on its publication. Some thought the work a catalyst for corruption. For Stuart Reid, writing in the December 2009 issue of the American Conservative: 'He was one of the key agents of corruption in the 1950s and [19]60s, the Jimmy Dean of the typewriter.' The Catcher was considered 'obscene' for its encouragement of 'self-love and self-pity on a massive, antisocial scale.'

With the success and notoriety of The Catcher came less structured works, delivered over a longer period of time. (Witness such efforts as 'Seymour - An Introduction' and 'Zooey'.) The theme of alienated adolescence would constantly feature in his work, including his creations, the Glass children. These include Franny, Zooey, Buddy, Seymour, Boo Boo, Walt and Waker. Many of his short stories were derivations of what had been done during the 1940s. But perhaps what is remembered less now was that The Catcher would take second place, at least for a time, to Franny (1955), a story initially published in the New Yorker. The 1961 volume, Franny and Zooey, motored up the New York Times bestseller list.

Critics took their literary scalpels to his work over time, finding his characters distinctly unattractive. The early 1960s signaled a particularly bruising period of critique. The critic Mary McCarthy founds parallels with Ernest Hemingway and a corrosive narcissism at work. 'Like Hemingway, Salinger sees the world in terms of allies and enemies.' The Catcher was 'based on a scheme of exclusiveness. The characters are divided into those who belong to the club and those who don't.' John Updike characteristically took issue with Salinger's poor composition and inert subjectivity. Joan Didion found his 'predilection for giving instructions for living' irritating.

Soon after these blows, the wounded author retreated into a forty-year obscurity in Cornish, New Hampshire, jealously guarding his masterpiece and details of his personal life. He was not averse to using the courts in this endeavor. Ian Hamilton's biography, at least in its original form, was waylaid in 1986 for its use of excerpts from unpublished letters. He embraced mysticism and a diet of homeopathy and acupuncture.

Despite those 'terrifying' details revealed about his characters by McCarthy, Salinger's work has defied obsolescence. 'Mr. Salinger,' wrote a humbled Michiko Kakutani of the books section of the New York Times, 'had such unerring radar for the feelings of teenage angst and vulnerability and anger' (NYT, Jan 29). This, even for the modern teenager, who Reid laments as being too worldly to purchase teenage angst 'because they know they can get it for free.'

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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