Almost six decades have passed since Jerome David Salinger published his last short story. And it has been eight years since his death. Yet he continues to influence not just American college undergraduates but readers across the world. The shy and reclusive writer, best known for his novel The Catcher in The Rye (1951), took the ruling intellectual aristocracy by storm with his extraordinary prose during the ’50s and ’60s. And then came the silence which is yet to be broken formally – Salinger kept on writing but published nothing.
Perhaps Salinger understood the sentiment of his time far better than anyone else writing after the Second World War. He created his mark in the literary world as Ernest Hemingway’s writing was going soft. His contemporary Norman Mailer called him “the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school”. But Salinger’s oeuvre is considered more profound than immature, conducting dialogues with – and sometimes monologues to – frustrations, aspirations, trials, loneliness, alienation and a search for equanimity in a hostile world.
Born in a financially stable Jewish household of New York City, Salinger was called Jerry by his friends. He went to public school in Manhattan and to three colleges, failing to get a degree at any of them. He wished to abandon the comforts of his life to join the US Army. His father, a businessman, got him admitted to a military school in Pennsylvania. It was during this time, at the age of 15, that Salinger began writing fiction. After graduating, he enrolled in a creative writing course at Columbia University, much to the dismay of his father.
His first short story, The Young Folks (1940), was published while he was still a 21-year-old student. After that his work appeared in many leading magazines including Esquire and. in his words, “mostly – and most happily – in the New Yorker.”
Going to war
During the Second World War, as a Staff Sergeant for the Fourth Infantry Division, Salinger was a part of five campaigns from D-Day till V-Day. Salinger kept writing whenever he could during combat. He was carrying six completed chapters of Catcher with him on V-Day, and had published some short stories during the war. In that period, his girlfriend back home, Oona O’Neill – daughter of Nobel Prize-winning American playwright Eugene O’Neill – married a 53-year-old Charlie Chaplin on her 18th birthday. This news left Salinger devastated.
Salinger was in combat for 299 days, and later ended up in a mental sanatorium as a result of witnessing atrocities, bloodshed and horrors during the war. As soon as he recovered from his nervous breakdown, he volunteered to serve as a counter-intelligence officer to track down the remaining Nazis in Germany. It was during this time that he met a young German woman named Sylvia Welter (“a low-level official of Nazi Party”), who would become the first of his three wives. Later, they would quarrel and file for divorce. Salinger, like many in combat, could never fully recover from the psychological impact of the war. War experiences are woven directly into a few of his stories, such For Esmé – With Love and Squalor (1950).
Enter the Glasses
A story of Salinger’s titled This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise appeared in Esquire in 1945. In the contributor’s note, Salinger had written: “I am a dash man and not a miler, and it is probable that I will never write a novel.” However, he did write a brilliant first novel featuring the now legendary character of Holden Caulfield, who first appeared in his brother’s thoughts in this story – perhaps he was already dead. In the story, Holden’s brother is on his way to a dance in an Army truck in the Georgia rain. He is fretting over the fact that there are thirty-four men in the truck and only thirty are supposed to go the dance. Amidst his plans “to knife the first four on the right”, he can’t stop thinking about Holden, who is “missing-in-action” in the war, according to the Government. He recollects the things that happened before Catcher, which implies that the events in the story took place after the end of the novel.
Salinger employed the same technique in some of his other stories about the Glass family. In A Perfect Day for Bananafish (1948), Seymour Glass – the eldest child in the Glass family saga – commits suicide during a holiday in Florida for no apparent reason. This is the only story where Seymour appears physically. Elsewhere, we only get to know about Seymour, the sage and first-rate seer-poet-philosopher, through other members of the Glass family: Buddy, Franny and Zooey. Most of the stories suggest that Seymour had an unrivalled influence over his siblings. In fact, he was the favourite child of his parents, and the most intelligent and gifted of the seven eccentric siblings, who were all part of a talk show called It’s a Wise Child while growing up.
Another quality about Salinger’s characters is that they seem to have a life beyond the stories in which they appear. Although they don’t appear physically in every story, Salinger gives their lives continuity by providing bits and pieces about them every now and then. Salinger’s delightful pieces about the Glass family (particularly Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters) are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, but what sets them apart really is that they are all constructed with great imagination.
The atmosphere is described in such detail and manner that the worlds in which the stories are set appear remarkably real. And Salinger’s prose is characteristically crisp, without losing the flavour of speech or thought. Reading Salinger is a strange and captivating experience – his cleverness makes the reader chuckle, and then, with equal finesse, he brings in melancholy in the very next phrase.
In his last piece for the New Yorker, Hapworth 16, 1924 (1965), before Salinger ceased to publish altogether, a seven-year-old Seymour writes an adult letter to his parents, his sister Boo Boo, and his brothers, the twins Walter and Waker. This is especially interesting because the letter is clearly too “heavy” for a boy of Seymour’s age: he advises his parents, expresses his view on life, god and writers; demands books, and even foretells the future – that his five-year-old brother Buddy, who is with him at a children’s camp, will become a writer and that he himself will die at the age of 30. The story didn’t go down well with critics who lambasted Salinger, claiming he had turn out of talent.
No one seems to have a coherent answer to why Salinger never published a word after this story. His last interview with the press was in 1980. Those fortunate few who managed to have a conversation with the writer after he had left New York for a secluded life in Cornish, New Hampshire in 1953, sick and tired of frantic fans following him around, seems to have an unsettling answer: Salinger felt writing was more important to him than publishing, which, he thought, took away the joy of writing.
Beholden to Holden
Salinger is said to have vented his depression through the character of Holden, the 17-year-old in panicky search of refuge from the world dominated by “phonies”. The Catcher in the Rye is a pathbreaking novel, one that is still considered a “cult” work, despite the fact that critics considered Salinger sentimental for holding unrealistic attitudes towards life and society. But there were many who defended the novel.
Salinger felt that children are innocent and that they degrade as they grow older. In the novel, Holden is fond of the innocence he sees in children. So was Salinger. He wrote: “Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all my best friends are children. It’s almost unbearable for me to realise that my book will be kept on a shelf out of their reach.”
It seems plausible that Salinger, through the hypersensitive, fascinating, and articulate character of Holden, was trying to express his own anger and angst about a cruel society. Little could Salinger have known then that he was creating more than a novel – he was giving a voice to a whole generation of youngsters, which found the same flaws in society that Holden did.
Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, perhaps Salinger was also in a way urging parents to be more attentive to their children. He was trying to say that nature has made man ceaselessly happy and good – it is society that corrupts him and in the end enmities cause him so much misery that he is left with no other option but to seek desperate isolation. Many readers of the novel felt that Holden’s story was about their lives. The Catcher in the Rye was hailed as one of the best novels of the twentieth century.
After the success of the novel, literary circles held the opinion that just as the Civil War gave America Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, the Second World War had given her Salinger. And comparisons were being drawn between Huck Finn and Holden. Huck, however, comes through with all his faculties intact towards the end in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin. But Holden doesn’t – our last glimpse of him in the novel suggests he was under the treatment of a psychoanalyst. In another story, he is missing in action or already dead. But there is something heroic in Holden’s act of turning his back to the world racked by frauds and shams – he is indeed one of the greatest moralists of twentieth century literature, though merely a foul-mouthed teenager.
Any die-hard fan of Salinger’s would love to see the Glass family saga taking the shape of a novel or more stories. A typical Salinger reader (including this writer) would also want to know what happened to Holden in the war.
Apart from his only novel, Salinger published three collections of short fiction – Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961) and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – An Introduction (1963). Some of his early stories he had rejected as juvenilia. A documentary on the life of the writer, Salinger (2013), by filmmaker Shane Salerno had promised that at least five books would be published between 2015 and 2020 as Salinger had wished in his will. But it’s already 2018 and nobody seems to have a clue.
A person’s reputation may be determined by what they display in their workshop, but their real character is held in what they keep concealed from view on the shelves. In that sense, the unpublished Salinger may tell us much more about him. The coming year, 2019, will mark his centenary – which may be a good time. Or we might have to wait till 2020. Or forever.
One thing is certain: it will be worth the wait.
The writer is obsessed with JD Salinger and always has an imaginary red hunting hat on. He also excels at detecting phoniness in people.