Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ode to a Recluse: Thoughts on Salinger

As many other readers (and writers) did this week, I mourned the death of Jerome David Salinger at 91 years old. On Twitter, I posted that he was one of my primary literary influences, but perhaps not for the reasons a writer growing up in the 60's and 70's would typically have. After a Saturday morning of reading the musings of others about Salinger in various blogs, I thought I'd throw my offering into the collection plate of public opinion on this subject.

I was never really moved by The Catcher in the Rye as so many of my contemporaries were. It was mandatory reading for me in high school honors English and I'm sure I thought I wrote a good book report, even though I didn't share Holden Caulfield's rebellious spirit or cynicism and couldn’t relate to him on any level. How could a Catholic school-educated, first-born son ever hope to rebel and not break the hearts of kith and kin? One may think by virtue of that one-line description alone, I would have plenty of reason to raise hell, run away, commit acts of unkindness or even hate the world. Nope; I was destined to be a good boy, leaving for later the "acting out" phase of my life.

When I got older and began to buy the classics for fun instead of obligation, I read some of Salinger's best short works and was finally seduced into believing the somewhat mythic hype about him that had grown during his self-imposed exile from the publishing world. I was convinced that Franny and Zooey was one of the best pieces of literature I ever read up to then (and still insist on that today). Because of Salinger’s new influence on me, I hungered for something that went beyond mere love of his prose: I wanted to be able to move people with words like his work did to me.

When I took those early tentative steps, first writing for myself and later for others, I would take note of the occasional news story that mentioned Salinger and his (even then) famous reclusiveness. The thought disturbed me at the time because while I was striving to find my literary voice, one that others would want to hear, there was Salinger, shunning the world, claiming to enjoy being out of the maelstrom, only writing for his enjoyment alone. How could anybody with such a gift do that? The idea that an artist would almost willfully mute himself, leaving his readers to wait and wonder, seemed almost cruel.

And yet, even in his reclusiveness, Salinger was a genius. Regardless of his reasons for becoming a hermit, his fans always remained hopeful that something new from his pen would someday hit the bookstores. Certain to be his final work, it would be the most magnum of all opuses, a swan song that couldn't be scripted any more dramatically. To my eternal sadness, though, every teasing suggestion that he would publish again was quickly snuffed out. Thus, for many, his reclusiveness became a bigger story than the art he produced. Not for me; in the end, the man became less important than the oeuvre he gave us.

The truth is this: while unlikely to happen in my lifetime, to be able to read a new work from one whose craft was honed over years of being out of the public spotlight would be like hearing a lost symphony by Mozart or viewing a never-seen Van Gogh masterpiece. I suspect Salinger would call that assertion hogwash (or worse), but I would hope he would still be pleased with the comparison.