I say that the true artist-seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own sacred human conscience.
— J.D. Salinger – Seymour: An Introduction
There was always something comforting about knowing that J.D. Salinger was still shuffling around the bending country roads of Cornish, New Hampshire, picking up his mail, stopping for a muffin and getting the grocery shopping done. It was reassuring, like kick-offs in the autumn and a first pitch in spring, haircuts and holidays; Ol’ Mr. Cranky is still holed up in that large tin barracks on his woodland property banging away on an old Underwood, wrinkled beyond recognition but every gray hair in place. But alas, on a frozen New England January day, the author recluse, the last human standing who can claim Great American Novel status, checked out for good.
This was just another in a series of exits for Salinger, albeit his last. He’d not only made “checking out” an art form, his raison d’etre, but eventually outlasted Howard Hughes as American’s most impenetrably ardent hermit. The subtler terminology for such behavior would be “retreating from unwanted attention,” which in an ironic twist worthy of his most striking characters transformed him from dropout scribe to silent legend.
Thus, stalking Salinger, although in recent years as the Boomers got older and less inclined to search for intangible things like lost youth or hope unanswered, was in itself an art form; the media, the fans, the curious – getting a glimpse of the man who penned The Catcher in the Rye just once, maybe get a photograph or God willing have a brief encounter, was an enduring obsession.
The aura around this book of Salinger’s — which perhaps should be read by everyone but young men — is this: it mirrors like a fun house mirror and amplifies like a distorted speaker one of the great tragedies of our times — the death of the imagination.
I believe that the imagination is the passport we create to take us into the real world. I believe the imagination is another phrase for what is most uniquely us. Our boy Holden says, “What scares me most is the other guy’s face — it wouldn’t be so bad if you could both be blindfolded — most of the time the faces we face are not the other guys’ but our own faces. And it’s the worst kind of yellowness to be so scared of yourself you put blindfolds on rather than deal with yourself…”
To face ourselves.
That’s the hard thing.
That’s God’s gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.
— John Guare – Six Degrees of Separation
There were hundreds of stories and countless periodical or televised introspective guesses to whatever the hell happened to J.D. Salinger, a man, who at 32-years-old published his one and only novel, a 236 page ode to the awakening from the sweet bliss of childhood ignorance into the stark, cold realities of becoming a compromised, disingenuous bit player in a fixed game. Adulthood is the enemy of its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, perhaps the most famous and deconstructed literary invention in the latter half of the 20th Century, the post-war, business booming, super-power American Century. It was to usher in the rise of the Middle Class and its everlasting explosions of atomic destruction, rock and roll and television.
In some ways it was the shedding of untruths about America in the sixties, not the button-down, smile-and-ignore-the-horror ‘50s that made The Catcher in the Rye what it would become, a dog-eared, coffee-stained Bible for practicing Hippies, striving to reject a slaying of the wild spirit engendered in those whose only worries surround skinned knees and cruel barbs, a pinky rolling forever lost into a sewer drain or the sun setting on another day of infinite imagination. There was an entire movement based on it, and aside from perhaps the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Woodstock or the uprising against an unjust war, only the first read of Catcher could best indoctrinate a generation of the spoiled and disillusioned.
Its author, however, was nothing of the kind. J.D. Salinger was the second child to well-to-do Upper West Side Jewish/Catholic parents, who sent him to Manhattan’s best schools and encouraged his love of the arts, eventually shipping him abroad to an exclusive Austrian trade institute until forced to flee from Nazi terror, a terror he would confront in 1944 as an infantryman on D-Day, where he miraculously survived the slaughterhouse of Utah Beach and frigid hand-to-hand mutilation at the Battle of the Bulge. Being among the first of forever-scarred soldiers liberating the concentration camps awarded J.D. Salinger an extended stay at an army mental hospital, an experience which formed the deepest recesses of several of his most memorable short story characters; drained and soulless creatures who returned from the war bitter, distant, and harshly cynical.
During the campaign in Europe, the young Salinger sought out and found Ernest Hemingway, with whom he carried on a correspondence for months, exchanging ideas and gaining inspiration. Rare for giving attention to anyone not killing, fighting or drinking, Papa ignited in Salinger a series of beautifully crafted short stories published in the famed New Yorker. The first such venture was a prelude to a theme stretched to its limit in Catcher, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, a delightfully disturbing “check-out” afternoon for an unbalanced young man named Seymour Glass, who begins innocently enough telling fairytales of fictitious ocean dwellers to a young girl in the surf on a sunny beach only to end up blithely traveling up to his darkened hotel room to discharge a pistol into his brain. In between there are the materialistic blathering wife and the purity of a child, another “phony” adult and an “unblemished” child inspiring a man’s unexplained exit.
Along with his lifelong penchant for “checking out”, disgust with mature matters and the worship of youth, particularly young girls, Bananafish began for Salinger what would become the literary undercurrent of a career shadowed by the enormity of Catcher. Seymour would only be one, if not the most significant of the Glass family, the entirety of which the author would mine for several and varied metaphors in his seminal works; Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High The Roof Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, his only other published books.
A team of psychiatrists working ‘round the clock daily for decades could scant crack the level of psychosis replete in these stories, bloated with characters so vividly bizarre and charmingly damaged by religion, commerce, war, family, sex and the gnawing curse of intellectual curiosity they crawl inside your head and force a sinister smirk through the tears. Not even a chubby little sophistic drone like Mark David Chapman’s marrow-sucking assassination dreams born of Holden Caulfield lore could hope to dwarf them.
And then J.D. Salinger checked out, never to publish again.
After the final Glass installment, Hapworth 16, 1924 in 1965, Salinger’s battle to remain as he once wrote as his “rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years” was won. He wrote, but we didn’t read. Several books by his daughter and former young assistants and lovers revealed some, but not enough. Only two biographies have been published, one rather forgetfully bland one and Ian Hamilton’s boundlessly interesting, In Search of J.D. Salinger, which by legal reprisal happenstance brought forth Salinger’s only public utterances in court interviews.
It was Hamilton’s constant harassment by Salinger to stay away, prompting the author to cut off friends and business associates, sue every known publishing house in New York coupled with the subsequent amateur pilgrimages that proved a hearty impetus for a memorable discussion with my friend and colleague Dan Bern on the rights owed to Salinger’s many worshipers that he publish again. Later, an aborted book idea to travel to Cornish and sit in the local coffee shop and take in the aura that had shrouded the town for a taste of the final steps of the mysterious J.D. Salinger only wetted our appetite to understand further the kind of mind and talent that could deny the innate need for the consummate artist to celebrate success.
But that is all gone now, with Jerome David Salinger, who checks out with the mind and heart of the Holy Trilogy and one masterpiece.
James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of Deep Tank Jersey, Fear No Art, Trailing Jesus, and Midnight For Cinderella. His work is archived at jamescampion.com.