Thursday, January 28, 2010

Salinger and Holden

Word has gone out that J. D. Salinger is dead at 91. The story was broken by his agent, Harold Ober Associates, whose job since the early sixties has been to cash checks and discourage biographers; Salinger has published nothing in recent years. One pictures his house filled with boxes of stories he disliked as soon as he'd written them, unless he burned them to warm the house in the New Hampshire winters.

His Cornish neighbors protected him as carefully as his agents did. Is it the business of an author to be a public personality? Catcher in the Rye inspired teenage rebels and at least one assassin, but was Holden Caulfield a self-portrait? Salinger attracted disciples, most of them young. One of them wrote a memoir about her creepy adolescent relationship with the famous novelist. It was a bestseller; but which of them was creepier?

Salinger was once a rebellious teen, but he also also put on a clean shirt and worked as a recreation director on a cruise ship, mustering a phony bonhomie for the prosperous vacationers. He wrote a story about a kid named Holden Caulfield, which was scheduled to run in the New Yorker when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, suddenly making his story too trivial to publish.

He joined the army, and landed in Normandy on D-Day. He met Hemingway in Paris, and spent Christmas 1944 fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. He celebrated his 26th birthday in deep snow, under enemy fire. Then he came home and wrote "the novel" and nothing was the same for him again. He became, in a way, the Roger Maris of American letters. It's all he needed to be. J. D. Salinger appears six times in A Book of Ages.

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