The Writing of J.D. Salinger

A great thread over at I Love Books, discussing the works of JD Salinger. There’s no agreement there … which is one of the reasons why I think Salinger is a great writer. Nobody can agree. It’s not a done deal. The mystery remains, and people still need to discuss his work: is it relevant outside of adolescence, what was up with his other work, etc.

I’m an unabashed Salinger fan – and it seems, judging from that thread – that I might be the only person who actually really dug Seymour: An Introduction. Actually, no, I know that’s not true: My friends David and Mitchell also rave like lunatics about Seymour: An Introduction. Seymour is all about the parentheticals. Every thought (even the ones you are most certain of, even the ones which seem beyond argument to you – in your own certainty) can be interrupted (or maybe that’s not the right word, maybe “enhanced” or “deepened” or “illuminated” is more accurate) by long parentheticals (because if we’re honest with ourselves, then it is apparent that CERTAINTY is a big fat lie – and anyone who can make any statement with any amount of certainty, and with no need for a long parenthetical explaining oneself, or softening the black-and-white nature of the certainty – is a liar). I found the parenthetical nature of Seymour not only hypnotic but also tragic. You can feel JD Salinger losing his feeling of ownership over language. He can no longer make a sentence with any sense of “I am allowed to do this.” Everything (and I mean, everything) must be interrupted (but again, maybe “enhanced” is a better word ) by a parenthetical. For someone looking for a straight narrative, Seymour would drive you nuts. I didn’t go into Seymour looking for narrative. I went in because I love Salinger, and I’ll go wherever he wants to go. But as I read it (and this might be romanticism – because, after all, I do not know JD Salinger) – I feel this overwhelming sadness. Emanating off the page. The torment of the writer.

But hell, I think all his stuff is great. I love the nine stories (especially “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut”), and “Franny and Zooey” is one of my favorite books ever.

In that thread over on I Love Books, someone left the following quote from Faulkner, which moved me greatly:

“I have not read all the work of this present generation of writing; I have not had time yet. So I must speak only of the ones I do know. I am thinking now of what I rate the best one: Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, perhaps because this one expresses so completely what I have tried to say: a youth, father to what will, must someday be a man, more intelligent than some and more sensitive than most, who (he would not even have called it by instinct because he did not know he possessed it) because God perhaps had put it there, loved man and wished to be a part of mankind, humanity, who tried to join the human race and failed. To me, his tragedy was not that he was, as he perhaps thought, not tough enough or brave enough or deserving enough to be accepted into humanity. His tragedy was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there.” – William Faulkner, 1958

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9 Responses to The Writing of J.D. Salinger

  1. Kate F says:

    1) I remember reading Catcher in the Rye for the first time at 11 years old and being positive that I was Phoebe. My brother Michael was a brilliant burnout, and a soulful intellectual trying constantly to anesthetize himself from the pain of the world, and the only person he connected to in my family was me.

    2) I think the entire Glass family is a creation of genius. Seymour, the crazy parents, and of course the siblings. Thinking of Catcher in the Rye and Perfect Day for Bananafish, do you think Salinger had some little sister in his life, or niece or something that he kind of loved/worshipped/envied or whatever? If anyone would know, it would probably be you.

    K

  2. Dave says:

    I thought Nine Stories and F&Z were absolutely beautiful. I loved them both.

    I despised Catcher. Twice.

    I read it in high school, arguably when you are “supposed” to read it (or at least when it would be most relative to your experience), and I thought Holden was a whiny punk.

    I read it again, post-college, armed with my English degree and a freshly-minted “perspective” on literature… and I still hated it. Holden was still a whiny punk.

    The only explanation I can come up with for its immense popularity is its pervasive “damn-the-man-ism” that was (and is) so chic.

    Why is it any good, red? Did i just completely miss the boat? Enlighten me. Because I’ve tried twice and I just couldn’t see it.

  3. red says:

    Dave –

    I don’t know. I was never big on “damn the man” so I have no idea what that’s about. The book just makes me laugh out loud. Consistently.

    I read it in high school in 10th grade English (under the best teacher I’ve had) – and loved it. More than anything else, I got the humor of it. Just the humor of the WRITING style, is what I’m talking about.

    I hear a lot of people say Holden is a whiny punk. I never understood that view. If you look at the extenuating circumstances, Holden’s alienation and rage is not only understandable, but it is the ONLY SANE RESPONSE to have. If my beloved older brother, my hero, the person I looked up to most, died suddenly when I was a teenager – and my parents sent me to a horrible boarding school because nobody could deal with my VERY NORMAL GRIEF – then yeah, I might come off as a “whiny punk” too. I always had tremendous compassion for Holden. Getting through the feckin’ day is just plain hard to some people. I include myself. So I get him, I get his struggle. To my view – Salinger completely expressed my own sense of trying to fit in, of being overly sensitive in a world that seemed callous … of trying to be understood.

    I’ve read the book many times since high school, and weirdly enough – it seems like a different book each time I read it. Because of where I was at in my life. That to me is the mark of a great book.

    A lot of people had the experience of loving Catcher as a teenager and then coming back to it and not being wacky about it.

    I had the opposite experience.

    Every time I read it, I feel closer to it. And yet still: there is something mysterious about it, something that eludes … It doesn’t quite say what it means. It is up for debate.

    And I’ll reiterate: the humor. I just love how he writes. I love the voice of Holden.

    I think if you don’t find the voice of the book funny, you won’t like it, flat out. You can’t force yourself to find something funny that you just don’t think is funny. Different people have different sensibilities – and to me – the Salinger voice in that book is COMEDY.

  4. red says:

    Kate – I can so see you as a little Phoebe. Phoebe is one of my favorite fictional characters EVER. WRITTEN. I love her, and I love how Holden writes about her.

  5. Emily says:

    I’ve always *loved* that Faulkner quote. My friend Shawn in college hated Catcher. Hated it. He went back and re-read it after I showed him that quote and said it was like it was a different book to him…

  6. What’s So Great about the Glass Family, Anyway?

    They’re arguing about J. D. Salinger over here. (via Sheila.)…

  7. red says:

    Wow, Emily – I had never heard the Faulkner quote before today. I love it.

  8. DBW says:

    I, too, have always felt a pervasive sadness in Salinger’s writing. I always felt a kinship with Seymour Glass–his character evoked a profound sadness in me as a young person. While not an overtly emotional teenager, I was affected by A Perfect Day for Bananafish–the idea that the world’s inherent loneliness and unintentional apathy could just be too much for some people touched a place in me. I really liked Seymour, and the fact that he felt he had no recourse but suicide was shocking to someone who was fortunate enough to grow up in a large, loving family that was the very definition of calm sanity. As youths, we all struggle at times to find our own place in the world. Prior to reading Salinger, I don’t think the idea that it might not all work out had ever entered my consciousness.

  9. The best quote I ever heard about Catcher was from a stoner chick at my high school. She said, “You read it and it’s like you’re not reading.”