SECLUSION & CYNICISM: CELEBRATING THE CENTENARY OF J.D. SALINGER
This year marks the centenary of one of the most celebrated authors of 20th-century literature- J D Salinger. For those who know his work, the name will either make you grin fondly or sniff derisively. For the rest of you, surely it will ring a bell. He is most well-known for his best-selling novel The Catcher in the Rye, which has been hailed as a classic and one of the most important works of literature of the 20th century. However, while it is much loved, the novel is also disliked in equal amounts- it has banned in many schools due to its contentious content and the abject cynicism it is famous for. The story follows the much-loved protagonist, the ‘phoney’-hating Holden Caulfield, as he charts his expulsion from school and returns to his family home in New York. Despite being written and published in 1951, many teenagers today are still able to find comfort in the novel and the ideas Salinger explores. As a coming of age novel, not only does it touch on the deeper issues experienced by teenagers as they move into the ‘real world’ but does so in a way that is hugely amusing and deeply familiar.
It was the publication of The Catcher in the Rye that made Salinger’s name and established him as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. However, the success of The Catcher in the Rye led Salinger to retreat into a stubborn seclusion, out of the view of the public eye. He was known to complain about the attention he received due to the staggering popularity of his novel. In fact, he closed himself off from society almost entirely for a short while and remained a ‘recluse’ for much of the rest of his life. The celebrated opening of the novel – “If you really want to know 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.” – enraptured readers and helped make the book an instant success. But Salinger despised the fame that came with the novel and the same man who used to go to London in 1951 and drink cocktails at the home of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh disliked the idea that he was now public property. He left New York in 1953 and was never quite the same again. There is a certain irony in that I am writing an article to commemorate his birth when he himself hated birthdays- or any culturally mandated celebration. This cynicism that is so characteristic of Salinger can be seen in all his novels and is at the core of The Catcher in the Rye, is also one of the things he is most loved for. He critiques society and social constructs with neither reservation nor hesitation, providing a fresh and striking narrative voice that enchanted readers across generations.
But it isn’t entirely fair to Salinger to label him as a ‘social hermit’ or ‘recluse’- like almost every article did at the time of his death in 2010. In his younger years, Salinger was an active socialite, frequenting glitzy New York bars and even toyed with the idea of becoming an actor at one point. However, in the spring of 1942, Salinger was drafted into the US army. The Second World War was a defining experience for the author and the horrors he witnessed left him with mental scars for life. “I have survived a lot,” he said, although he never talked publicly about what he had seen pin the war. Salinger served in the infantry and in counter-intelligence. he participated in the assault on Utah Beach as part of the D-day landings and had also witnessed the conditions prisoners were experiencing in concentration camps. He was present during the brutal and bloody Battle of Hürtgen Forest in late 1944, and once said: “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live”. According to Kenneth Slawenski, one of Salinger’s biographers, Salinger was sent to hospital after the end of the war, for what would now probably be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The trauma Salinger experienced during the war clearly helped shape the narrative voice he creates in The Catcher in the Rye- in fact, Caulfield's first appearance in literature was made in a short story Salinger wrote while away with the army. Salinger’s fascination with the youth (especially teenage girls) can also be seen in his work- for example, ‘For Esmé—with Love and Squalor’, which was published before Catcher, in 1950, and is an equally wonderful read. Salinger lived out the rest of his life in his odd semi’ seclusion. He went on to have many affairs with girls in their teens and early twenties, despite his own age, before marrying for the second time and having two children. He, according to the biographies and memoirs published by former lovers, his daughter Margaret and friends, had very strange habits, such as following a rigid diet that included eating frozen peas for breakfast, and, despite having hated the loneliness of his own childhood at military academy, was surprisingly unsympathetic towards his children and coldly apathetic in the face of their problems.
His last published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924”, came out in 1965. In his will, Salinger suggested that some of his unpublished works could be out by 2020. It is unlikely anything new will match the exuberance of The Catcher in the Rye, which still sells a quarter of a million copies a year. Perhaps we will never find out how good his writing from those lonely years was or whether Salinger’s enigmatic exile lent his work a seriousness it didn’t deserve.
Suffice it to say that, while Salinger grew into a strange and aloof man, his work speaks for itself and remains at the heart of 20th Century literature. Novels such as The Catcher in the Rye have continued and will continue to impact reader of all generations across the globe, and I can do nothing more than recommend them with genuine adoration and admiration.