On Salinger

by aengelson | January 29th, 2010

So J.D. Salinger died.

News travels fast from New Hampshire to Hanoi these days. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge Salinger fan, but The Catcher in the Rye influenced me as writer in more ways than I’d like to admit.

Salinger's book is both a novel and a cultural icon.

I don’t have specific memories or stories about the first time I read it. More a sort of general feeling about the freedom of being young and smart and free–and reading a book about being young and smart and free–and learning to think for yourself and swinging punches at a world that didn’t really care much about you or what you were interested in. It was a time when I fancied being a writer or a journalist. It was when I was heading off to college to become the person I now am. It was a time when I began to realize that books could do more than lift you up and make you noble. Books were sometimes bad for your character, but those books made life more liveable and bearable and fun.

I don’t even know if all of this came to me specifically from reading The Catcher in the Rye. But now that I’m muddling my way through writing my first novel, I think about The Catcher more and more. Though my characters and setting are very different, that Caulfield voice–cynical, chatty, intelligent, unknowingly poignant and wise–is an influence I can’t shake off or ignore. Any American writer hoping to write about youth in the first person has to eventually come to terms with Holden Caulfield. And particularly in my instance: my book happens to be set  in the mid-twentieth century (what the hell was I thinking, I keep asking myself). It’s hard not to slip into that voice.

In some ways, Salinger’s book is more than just a novel. It’s a cultural symbol–like the Mona Lisa or Marilyn Monroe–bigger than all it contains, significant not just for its content, but what it represents: coming-of-age, rebellion, the evil pleasures of reading. Even the cover of the book itself is iconic (at least the edition I have–and I think it’s pretty much stayed the same through its many printings). It’s austere, free of the hyperbole or the marketing or the bullshit that graces most book covers. It says: this book needs no introduction. In some ways it’s contemporary American culture’s ur-book: the book you’re supposed to read when you’re first discovering what it is to be reader and an adult. It’s also a touchstone. How many times have reviewers labeled a debut novel “A Catcher in the Rye for our time?” I swear there was a blurb that said exactly that on the cover of Generation X, but I can’t check, since my copy of Coupland’s novel was lost in a flood and I had no need to replace it.

But I still have my battered copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which I think I stole from my dad’s bookshelf.

The fame that attached itself to Salinger’s book, like some sort of toxic mold, was the kind of fame-for-fame’s-sake that drove Salinger into seclusion and near-madness, and which I would guess he despised for its shallowness. In a word, it’s phony. Salinger left the world at a moment when fame is everything. What we value today is simply measured by how many people instantly recognize it. That’s all. Be it Paris Hilton or Avatar or The Catcher in the Rye. Sometimes what’s famous is good, as Salinger’s book is. But it’s not a prerequisite. I suppose it never really was, but today what is celebrated seems more hollow than ever.

Inevitably there will be talk of what Salinger had been been writing during his 50-year New England exile. I have to say I’m a little creeped out about the idea of a safe full of a dozen unpublished Salinger novels or stories. There’s something disturbing about that–in a sort of Jack Nicholson in The Shining sort of way. But perhaps, like Emily Dickinson, the vast body of his work will see the light of day after he’s passed on. But whatever is locked in that safe won’t have quite the impact of The Catcher.

For more about Salinger, check out a  a great story of how my friend Erik scooped but then failed to scoop the story of the publication of Salinger’s story Hapworth 16, 1924 in book form. The New York Times Book Review‘s Michiko Kakutani has some thoughts on Salinger, although in the article she uses the word “limn,” which I believe should be permanently removed from the book reviewer’s lexicon. It’s like nails on a chalkboard for me. I mean, who besides book critics ever uses that word?

What a phony.

5 Responses to “On Salinger”

  1. Rbt. B. Rutherford says:

    Great post, Andy.

  2. Beautiful thoughts on “Catcher,” Andy.

  3. Brian Hosey says:

    Very enjoyable piece!

  4. Thanks everyone for the kind comments. It felt good to write it–it kind of took me by surprise how Salinger’s death set some gears in motion. Now I just need to write post on the most annoying words in the English language…

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About This Site

Hi, I'm Andy Engelson, a writer and editor who lived in Hanoi for five years and now lives in Geneva Switzerland. This blog is no longer active, but you can find more of my writing at The Lost Salt Atlas. I'm currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. In a former life, I edited Washington Trails magazine. I like to hike, travel, and play with my family.


“What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,” thought he, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky, the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. “How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran,” thought Prince Andrew “not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even if it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…” — Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace


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