The news of the death of J.D. Salinger recalled the famous Dorothy Parker quip on being told that Calvin Coolidge was dead: "How can they tell?"
Of all the iconic writers of the second half of the 20th century, Salinger let us down most. Like one of his characters who demanded "authenticity," the author hid behind being authentic only to himself. He escaped constant public acknowledgement after publishing "The Catcher in the Rye" and only a dozen or so short stories.
He was not a man of his time. In our contemporary culture, which catapults good, mediocre and lousy writers into the den of lions for the rest of us to wait impatiently for the kill, he would not be pushed, shoved or flattered to engage. He rejected his 15 minutes of fame -- or as one obituary writer put it, "he was famous for not being famous."
Unfortunately, he was too pained to write for anyone but himself, and possibly for posterity if he left anything to be published posthumously. He shunned interviewers and wouldn't be exploited with tales of "mixing memory and desire," to quote from one of his short stories quoting T.S. Eliot. What has been largely overlooked in the discussions of Salinger's works after his death is the intelligent reading behind his writing. Ambitious teenagers would do well to imitate.
Holden Caufield, the narrator in "Catcher in the Rye," not only immortalized adolescent angst, he showed how it was smart to be smart. He had been kicked out of school, but not because he wouldn't read, even books he thought might "stink." He loved "classical books" and fantasized he might have been friends with the authors of the ones he liked best. Holden didn't want his own biography told like that of David Copperfield, but he knew "David Copperfield" well enough to criticize it. He was not a dumbed-down boy.
I spent the weekend rereading most of Salinger's work (a slender legacy) and learned to my pleasure that the novel and short stories remain refreshing and wonderfully innocent and politically incorrect. His characters smoke, but the reader follows the dim light and the falling ash of the cigarettes as contributing to the meaning of the action. When Seymour, an adult in the short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," talks to a little girl about the tale of "Little Black Sambo," the tale is not condemned as racist but cherished as a poetic point of common reference in an amusing fairy tale:
"Did the tigers run all around that tree?"
"I thought they'd never stop. I never saw so many tigers."
"There's only six," Sybil said.