Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Passing of a Legend

J.D. Salinger passed away on the 27th. He was 91 years old and died from natural causes. Salinger's Literary Representative stated that he was in remarkable health until the new year when things started to decline.

I first read J.D. Salinger's controversial novel Catcher in the Rye when I was showing a copy I had to my girlfriend. "Have you ever read it?" she asked. "No," I said, "I always thought it would be to hard to understand." She shoved the book in my hands excitedly and said, "Read the first paragraph."

She sat down while I stood and read, out loud, the words that captured me from the instant I finished:

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. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all. I'm not saying that-but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.

"I think...I love this," I said.

And I did.

I gorged myself on that book, fascinated by the fact that an adult wrote it. Salinger caught the teenage angst that we all go through. I really like the character of Holden Caulfield. He remains wedged in my mind, a constant reminder of what it was like to be young, dumb and full of trashtalk.

Soon after, I did some research on Salinger, finding out that there was more to the story. Salinger wanted to be famous but when the time finally came, he wanted no part of it. He became a recluse, only writing words for himself instead of the open public. I remember one such story that Stephen King told when he was promoting his book Lisey's Story, in which an author leaves behind a vast amount of unpublished works after his death. Salinger walks into the place where he keeps his safety deposit box. In his hands, a large stack of pages. A woman notices him and asks, "Excuse me? Aren't you J.D. Salinger?"


"Are those your manuscripts?"


"Why are you putting them away? Why not publish them?"

It is then that Salinger turns to her and says, "What for?"

"Why is it that the words we write for ourselves are more important than the words we right for others?" These were Sean Connery's lines from Finding Forrester, a movie in 2000 which depicted an author much like Salinger, closed away from the world.

I learned a lot from Mr. Salinger without even meeting him. For decades he turned down movie offers for Catcher in the Rye, already dealing with one adaptation that he passionately despised. He just basically wanted to be left alone. I can respect that. I hope that his unpublished works don't become mangled or made public. Y'see, there's a beauty in this little mystery here that I think shouldn't be bothered with. It's like revealing the wizard of oz when you weren't ready for it. Better to leave the curtained closed.

There was a man who tried, I think, to coax Mr. Salinger out of hiding by writing a sequel to Catcher. He called it 60 years later: Coming through the rye. To everyone's surprise, Salinger won the court case and the book became promptly out of print. Although, you can still find copies floating around Europe. Maybe with this passing, John California, the man responsible for the sequel, will try to publish it again.

But there is one thing that I learned from Mr. Salinger and that was that he was a teacher. In order to be a better writer, I read constantly. Of the books I've read, his work stands out the most. I see all of the books as lessons and their authors as teachers. So, in that respect, I was overjoyed to have read a lesson from a very memorable teacher.

So long, J.D.

Hope you don't come across any phonies in the next life.

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though." — J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye)

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