Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Don't ever tell anybody anything..."

a tribute to J.D. Salinger 1919 - 2010

Like many, I was pretty much in love with Holden Caulfield. We had so much in common; he was full of adolescent angst and it’s attendant depression, had family troubles, and a faculty for spotting bullshit and phony people. And not a far-fetched prospect: 17 years to my 12. During junior high school I went through a period during which I ate nothing but Swiss cheese sandwiches, in his honor.

But I was not exactly as moony as all that sounds. I did have the wherewithal to realize that my affections for this character might easily translate to solidarity with his author. And so, I went in search of more information on his elusive creator: Jerome David Salinger. Of course, I came home from the library empty handed because, as everyone else already knew, J.D. was a very guarded man.

So, I sought him through his books. In Franny and Zooey, Seymour, an Introduction, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, I met the Glass family and fell in love all over again; more characters with brains and wit, prone to spiritual and existential crisis and wise beyond their years. During my more fervent writing years, I looked to Salinger as a guide for how to creatively exorcise existential anguish and air my grievances with the world. Of course, I had little to no success, which is how I know that a truly gifted writer is never simply issuing their personal gripes through the voices of their literary progeny.

Most of Salinger’s characters exist in some state of alienation often teetering on the cusp of emotional collapse. Franny struggles with the realization that while she has no trouble meeting people she likes, it’s almost impossible to find anyone she respects. Holden hasn’t the stomach for bullshit. Seymour cannot abide an ordinary life. It’s difficult to deny an underlying kinship when a reclusive writer tells the tales of the misanthropic and the malcontent.

… If you do, you start missing everybody.”

And I have to admit, as frequently as I fall for characters I still have trouble separating them from their genesis. Perhaps they weren’t designed to speak his truth – Holden with his excessive profanity and Seymour’s morbid humor - but rather to demonstrate his sympathies. Hardly emotional dummies, these characters represent the sort of people Salinger wished to know but never found. It’s too easy to pin withdrawal from society on emotional vulnerability, and I wouldn’t accuse a writer I admire of such a lily-livered temperament.

I think Salinger’s self-imposed exile was in part a withholding from a public with which the writer was endlessly dissatisfied; but I also believe it was a self-protective measure – a way to avoid attachment to something (people, fame, etc.) that would invariably, eventually let him down. Like Holden said “don’t ever tell anybody anything… if you do, you start missing everybody.” I’m glad Salinger didn’t take this notion entirely to heart. I don’t know where I’d be without Holden and the family Glass – co-conspirators in angst, companions in exile.