This particular blog entry has been months in the making. The literary world lost two giants on Wednesday, January 27th 2010.
I had to stifle a gut-reaction blog entry on J.D. Salinger after first hearing he had died. He was, to me, as he was to so many professional readers and writers, an inspiration and an example. J.D. Salinger is the man who got a reluctant high school boy to pick up another book, and another, and then another after that. Aside from Goosebumps books by young horror writer, R.L Stine, The Catcher in the Rye was the only book I had read multiple times as a youth and enjoyed. Unlike the Goosebumps books, though, I actually connected with Salinger’s works. I learned something and this was an absolute revolution for fourteen-year-old me. Learn something from books? You’re kidding me!
I recently got into a heated discussion with someone close to me about the value of The Catcher in the Rye. He was adamant that the novel was out-dated and pointless. That Holden Caulfiled represented nothing but juvenile angst and whiny, bratty self-indulgence. I disagreed. To me, Holden Caulfiled and his disgruntled anti-fascination with everyone and everything “phony” was a direct indicator of what was happening in America at the time. People were terrified to be themselves, so they became someone else. They put on masks and poses, especially in mixed company. They appeared “tough” and “relaxed.” They did all they could to appear whole-heartedly American, as if there’s any one thing that could represent what it means to be American or not. This was, let us not forget, the time of the great Communism scare (and hoax, really). Neighbors were turning in neighbors over simple disagreements. Teachers were brought in front of inquisitorial panels for teaching “subversive” materials. Scientists, philosophers, and even actors were grilled, black-listed, subpoenaed to testify in court against themselves, against their spouses, their friends, their relatives.
American culture was simultaneously being attacked, subverted, and preparing to explode. The Stonewall riots were around the corner. The independent literary and music scenes were beginning to grow in numbers and in influence. Artists and Hollywood were gaining power, threatening the iron-clad control of government over it’s people. False idols. (“Thought police” as Burroughs might phrase it).
Salinger was quite obviously terribly disturbed by the disillusionment of “American” ideals. He was concerned that children were growing up too fast. That the advent of media sources, exposé literature, radio, faster transportation – was all contributing to a loss of innocence for American youth. Franny and Zooey and the other Glass Family stories, for instance, are concerned with a type of perfect child – more intelligent and civil than adults, but less capable. Strained to the breaking point between the inability to grow up, and the necessity to grow up too fast – to be too responsible, too young. Too soon. Where were the good old days, when children could be children? Where adults could be counted on to be responsible, reliable, to make the right decisions and to protect and guide their children? Why are children being left to make these choices on their own? To grow up without role models?
In one of my favorite Salinger stories “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” found in the Nine Stories collection, one of the Glass children, Seymour (whose story is also told in the novella Seymour: An Introduction) commits suicide. The reason is still debated, but it seems to me to have a particular relationship to Seymour’s encounter with a young, innocent girl on the beach, whom he can’t help but compare to his wife – a superficial, shallow, insubstantial woman, mainly concerned with fashion and stature. Like Holden Caulfiled, who goes apparently insane at the thought of losing his sister to adulthood, Seymour cannot cope with the idea that this young girl may soon grow up to be just like his wife, or his wife’s mother, or any other adult American woman, so preoccupied with absolutely nothing important.
I’ve somehow detoured from the path, here. Salinger was my first literary influence and inspiration. I enjoy his writing for the very reasons I began to get so distracted above. The honesty, the pain, the confusion, and the fear for the future. I also appreciate that Salinger was disturbed that people found his writing so important. It must have terrified him to think that his worst fears for America were being popularly devoured by American (and foreign) critics as art, as literature. Certainly, he knew he was a writer. Still, I think it hurt Salinger to be so painfully honest with the public about his fears, only to be received in such a populist, star-studded fashion (Salinger was no fan of Hollywood stardom, after all). I’m not sure what he was hoping for. Perhaps an awakening, a renaissance in America. A realization that we were headed down a destructive path, where all our children were ultimately doomed to become mindless drones. Instead, he became his own worst nightmare – an idol to people.
Of course, Salinger would likely despise this and any other commemorative writing about him. He would say it’s just another representation of the kind of nonsense he was trying to escape, avoid, destroy. Another reason why he disappeared from the world, stopped publishing, etc. And I get that. I think a lot of us who really get Salinger understand that, ironically, our very adoration for this man and his writing is what Salinger would find most troubling about us. Still, I for one can’t help it. I will continue to read his works, to write about him and about his stories. I hope that more of his writing will be released, someday. I dream of the day I can visit private collections, like the ones at Princeton University, and spend hours devouring more Salinger.
There are many ways I could end my reflection on Salinger, but – oddly enough, I think I will go with a quote, not from The Catcher in the Rye or “Teddy” or Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters but from the above-named “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” This quote, I think, encompasses what Salinger was saying to his audience, about himself. You want to read my works? Fine, read them – just don’t pretend that they’re anything other than words on paper, or that I’m anything other than a man and a writer. I’m no prophet, and my writing is no gospel:
“If you want to look at my feet, say so,” said the young man. “But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.” – J.D. Salinger
The second literary and cultural giant we lost that day, Howard Zinn, was author of A People’s History of the United States. He was a liberal progressive, whose goal was to educate people about the often altered or ignored United States history. I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Zinn, nor to hear him speak, nor even to read much of his work. I admit, I only ordered his A People’s History after hearing of his passing. Still, the loss is felt. Honesty and “alternative” views of history are rare indeed, especially when that alternative view (counter to schoolbook textbooks, that is) is closer to the hardened, factual truth of what is American history. From Christopher Columbus and the native Americans – the “Trail of Tears” and the “Gold Rush”. McCarthyism, the “Red Scare”, and Women’s Suffrage. All of our American history is told in a certain, tending-to-be sugar-coated manner. We refuse to remember the realities, the tragedies, the truly awful things we’ve put ourselves and fellow citizens through (Japanese Concentration Camps, anyone?) and, instead, focus only on the great American dream – and it is a great dream. It’s just important to also remember the truth – the mistakes. The who, what, where, when, and, most importantly why of American history. These realities are what make up America as we know it now, and as we will shape it in the future.
I’m eager to read more about Zinn, and to read his best known work, his opus of American history. I wish I had more knowledge of the man before he passed on. I wish I could have seen him, spoken to him, read his works before he was gone. But if historians have taught us anything about history, it’s that it’s never too late. Regrets are pointless, really, because there’s always something that can be learned and a change that can be made.
“There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” – H. Zinn