Monday, June 8, 2015

J.D. Salinger, we hardly knew ye ... by Michael Little

[Note:  J.D. Salinger died five years ago.  This is an essay I wrote at that time.  All true at the time, and today.]

Image result for The Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger, best known for writing a sensationally popular and critically acclaimed novel over 50 years ago, and for never having appeared on Oprah or The Tonight Show, or pretty much anywhere else outside of Cornish, New Hampshire, after he ran from his celebrity, died last week at the age of 91.

This news has been rattling around in my head in the five days since he left us (this time for good). My thoughts on Salinger keep returning not to the writer but to his most famous character, the narrator and antihero of The Catcher in the Rye, on his way home at Christmas from yet another dismal failure as a prep school student, but not going straight home, instead spending a weekend underground in Manhattan, searching, lost, the 20th century Huck Finn, and like Huck always on the move—Holden Caulfield.

Everyone who's read Catcher has their own memories. For me, it's summer and I've just graduated from high school. I'm in Saint Louis taking music classes and I've bought a copy of the book I've heard about and I'm sitting in a small restaurant by myself, reading Holden's account of his weekend in New York City.

The book's paperback cover promises that "This unusual book will shock you, may make you laugh, and may break your heart—but you will never forget it." True on all points, although the book gave me more laughs than shocks, and as for breaking my heart, that was something I would have to wait six months for, when my high school sweetheart ran off with a sailor (an event that Holden would probably describe as both "corny" and "crummy").

About six years later Holden is waiting for me again. I need to choose a subject for a master's thesis in English, and I return to The Catcher in the Rye. By this time I've taken just about every literature class I can and I'm armed with all kinds of cool analytical tools to dissect Salinger and his book. When I read the rest of his fiction I am struck mostly by the importance of family in the stories, and not so much parents as siblings. All the Glass family brothers and sisters drive most of the other stories. As for Catcher, it's Holden's sister, Phoebe, who means the most to him and ultimately saves him from his crummy lost weekend. It's for Phoebe that Holden returns home.

So I write the thesis and call it "The Value of the Family in J. D. Salinger." Having finished the project, of course, I move on to other writers, other literature classes, away from Holden and Catcher, although, as the cover says, you will never forget it. Or him.

Eventually I move on to teach college English in Seattle. You would think that I'd include Holden in one of the college English courses, but I never do. I don't know why, I just don't. When I board a United flight one snowy Seattle morning, on my way to a new life in Hawaii, how can I have known that Holden is waiting for me on Maui?

It takes a couple of years on Maui, but on a fateful afternoon at Baldwin High School, there I am in the dusty old book room and another teacher is telling me to "look around and see what you can find." I spy a modest stack of worn, abandoned paperbacks against a wall. I move closer for a better look, and of course it's The Catcher in the Rye. Holden's been waiting for me. Lucky for me, and lucky for my students, there are just enough copies for the one class that awaits a new book. The next day I pass out the old paperbacks, ask the students to open them to chapter one, and then I begin reading aloud:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Nobody speaks. I look up and the students all have their faces in the books. "Keep reading," one of them says. So I do. In the days that follow we live through that weekend with Holden Caulfield. By the time we finish the book the school year is almost over. No time to start another book. I collect some of the Catcher paperbacks (about half of the books have disappeared, and I know that the students who liked Holden best just can't give him up, and that's fine). I return the remaining books to the dusty old book room. They may still be there.

So that's it. I'm ready to move on. I look through the obituary and articles about J.D. Salinger in The New York Times, and I wish him well on his journey. As far as I know, Salinger never met Oprah. He never crashed a White House dinner. He never needed to be famous. But Holden Caulfield takes on the world for him. The book awaits.

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