J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)

It’s been a busy week for the Grim Reaper: first Howard Zinn, then J.D. Salinger. Both men had a strong influence on American culture, albeit in very different ways. It’s been said that reading The Catcher in the Rye has virtually become a rite of passage for young people. It’s not hard to see why a young person would find the book appealing. It tells the story of a bright, idealistic teenager who is narrowly saved from going completely bonkers. A certain type of person can easily imagine this as his or her own story.

Salinger almost became more famous for being a recluse than for being a writer. In the early sixties, he stopped giving interviews and he soon stopped publishing anything. Now, one sure way to draw attention to oneself is to noisily proclaim that one wants to be left alone. Salinger reportedly built a six-and-a-half foot tall fence around his property in New Hampshire. People in that part of the country are more likely to simply put up “No Trespassing” signs. Ultimately, Salinger’s reclusion proved futile. His own daughter wrote a book about him. His former girlfriend, Joyce Maynard, wrote a book describing in intimate detail how they had sex – telling us more than we ever really wanted to know about Salinger.

Mark David Chapman, the nutjob who shot John Lennon, was reportedly reading The Catcher in the Rye when the police arrested him. Perhaps one of the reasons Salinger became a recluse was that he may have sensed that his work appealed to people like that.

All of this talk about The Catcher in the Rye reminds me of a story. Years ago I worked at a bookstore. (This was before I worked for that behemoth, Barnes & Noble.) One of the managers there was the daughter of the store’s owner. (I wonder how she got her job?) It was embarrassingly obvious that she knew nothing about books. What’s more, she was often mean to the employees, and she was sometimes rude to the customers as well. One day, Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, came into the store. Word went around among the employees that a celebrity was in the building. This manager got wind of this, and she asked one of the head managers who the celebrity was. This guy was a snooty little fellow who had a deliciously wicked sense of humor. He told her that Holden Caulfield was in the store. She then went around saying to people, “Holden Caulfield is here.”

I grin whenever I think of this story, but at the same time something about it strikes me as being kind of awful, partly because I feel a bit sorry for this woman, and partly because of her ignorance. I wonder what Salinger would have made of this.

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