Wear Black and Party: the Death of J.D. Salinger
So what's the big deal? Dude published four books, one of them was universally accepted as one of the greatest coming-of-age stories to over-use a single word (in this case, 'phony') since Huck Finn, the other three were rented out to the kingdom of hipster obscurity. So he died. What-ever... Oh, I almost wish I could feel so blasé!
On January 1st 1009, J.D. Salinger's 90th birthday, I posted a blog, a letter to the aging writer known as much for his esteemed first novel Catcher in the Rye as for his seclusion from society. I am pretty sure he never read it. When I first heard of his death (via text message, thank you, Liz; thank you, Ian), I instantly was overcome with emotion. It took me the next few hours to determine what this emotion was exactly. In the end, I have settled on: ecstatic mourning.
I have been waiting years (and years) for the Death of J.D. Salinger. Though I consider him one of the greatest 20th century American writers (if not the greatest) his seclusion not only kept him hidden, but kept his writing completely private, too. Since his disappearance from the public world, many have speculated on the possibility of a treasure trove of unpublished works. In her famous memoir At Home in the World, written mostly about the years she spent as Salinger's lover, Joyce Maynard claims to have seen files devoted to new and unpublished works from Salinger's own hand. Because of the intensely secluded and, most frustrating for fans and scholars, secretive nature of the writer's life, her claims function only as rumors. For someone who wanted no public attention and who gave sometimes baffling reasons for his lifelong decisions, Salinger mananged, as Paul Medina put it, to stay "sucessfully anonymous". Most things we know about his life since his last interview given in the 80's have been either simple, (and often unexciting) facts or speculation.
But still, why do I tingle with confusion and excitement from the news of the death of J.D Salinger? For the same reason that everyone else who loves his work does: the Glass family. The Glass family were his his main literary children. He cultivated and coveted them as a farmer does a harvest. It is widely speculated that Salinger, despite his seclusion from the public as well as the publishing world, did not abandon the Glass family as he abandoned us. Somewhere in archives left behind, more of their lives and histories are written and with the same devotion as a parent should give to its children. I cherish the day when these archives are unleashed, and I can read them with the same zeal that I read his work for the first time in the earlier years of the millennium. Never has a family so candid graced the pages of a book since 1953, when literature was first introduced to Seymour Glass in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish". Seymour, a character honeymooning in this story, haunts every other story that follows this in the history of Salinger's publications. Seymour is one of seven children of former vaudevillians Les and Bessie Glass. Not every story in Nine Stories, Salinger's second book and the one with 'Bananafish', features a member of the Glass family. I read this collection as perhaps the greatest anti-war book ever compiled. But the anti-war sentiment is in no way pounded over the reader's head. Salinger, best known for writing one of the best coming-of-age stories in the 1900's, should also be acclaimed for his subtleties.
Seymour Glass's youngest brother and sister, Franny and Zooey are the title characters of two novellas published together in one book in 1961. This, followed by Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction in 1963, complete the published books of J. D. Salinger. Yes, that is it. Franny & Zooey is the only novel I've read completely and enjoyed where five minutes of a single character's life can last thirty pages (or more) and still fascinate me. Details like Mrs. Glass saying something to a bath mat or a description of an overflowing bathroom cabinet say more about what it is like to be human than any attempt Salinger could have made to describe the sensation. Oh, and his use of italics: exceptional. Completely unique. Constantly mimicked; never matched.
Yesterday, following the discovery of this man's death, the only death I have longed for, plotted, attempted to spiritually cause, I celebrated first, then panicked. During my panic, I left my apartment for a meeting. My panic included: not being able to read the New York Times' article on his passing, posting links, status updates and comments on others' links and status updates on Facebook, posting links and exclamations on Twitter and, finally, talking the ear off of my stepsister as soon as she walked through the door. I brought my hardcover copy of Catcher with me on the subway.
When I stepped off the subway at City Hall in Philadelphia, the cold January evening seemed both dim and bright at the same time. The air tingled, but felt almost like something impossibly solid. Across 15th St., in the direction I headed, stands a sculpture in the shape of a giant clothespin, a work by Claes Oldenburg. The Philadelphia Arts patron, Jack Wolgin, who commissioned the piece of art to be erected there, died earlier this month. And something was sudden and no longer looming, but immediate: Can it be, that this is what it is to be human? To know, to really understand, that there is death, and everywhere? The evening blew cold winds at me, my hands were frozen, but all I could think as I waited for a light to change, as I crossed the street, as I watched students hurry to class, businessmen and women hurry home, the general population of an urban landscape inhale and exhale, all I could think was that Salinger would have hated this: the city, its life, its pace, its capacity for so many things human. Yet it is the human-ness in Salinger's work that I cherish the most. How though his books were written over half a century ago, there is an enduring quality to their truths. I read his works to feel this truth. I write, also, to feel this truth. I traverse the city and relish in the fact that I am surrounded by a claustrophobic amount of humanity.
It was in this epiphany that I was the most sad for the loss of this man. For all the criticism he endured for his decisions he made about his fame and his art, for all of the unscrupulous praise he received despite his wish to be left alone, and for all of the rumors of his chauvinism and disturbing eccentricities, he was human. And when I read his novels, which are the only vehicles I praise him by, I love them because they are human. And now, he is dead.
J.D. Salinger is a time capsule of American literature. After his funeral, he will be buried underground like a good time capsule should be. And the wait for his work, for the glimpses of how a hermit of over fifty years saw the world and saw humanity and saw life from the inside of a New Hampshire house, begins. Tonight, I will wear black, in solidarity with the sadness of the passing of one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. But also, I will party.
some of my books... including my four hardcover Salingers...