They’re dropping like flies this week, dear readers. Yesterday it was reported that both actress Zelda Rubinstein and author/historian Howard Zinn had died and today word comes that J.D. Salinger, famed author of Catcher in the Rye is also gone, at the ripe old age of 91. A recluse for most of his life, besides the occasional lawsuit to stop seemingly anyone from publishing any details about his life, one could be forgiven for thinking him already dead which, I suppose, might have pleased him immensely.
What we are left with is a blurry portrait, taken from accounts by a former lover and his daughter. The man who emerges is a narcissist with a penchant for Eastern philosophy, homeopathy, and drinking his own urine. It is, perhaps, not the most flattering of biographies.
Still, in the end, none of this really matters. Those who will mourn the loss of Salinger do not mourn him, so much as they mourn the man who gave us Holden Caulfield. In that sense, the frustration with Salinger’s reticence has less to do with the words from his mouth than those from his typewriter. All we are left with is a set of four, slim volumes and a handful of short stories, taking up precious little in the way of shelf space. And yet his most famous creation, the young Mr. Caulfield, endures in just about every aspect of adolescence in this country. One may dispute Salinger’s ability with the written word and it would be a far easier proposition than disputing his influence. In many ways, J.D. Salinger created the teenager we know today. The sullen, disenchanted, angry and, ultimately, sensitive young person was set in stone in Catcher in the Rye, the model for countless (if not all) counterculture icons since.
It may be that such effusive words are unwarranted when describing a book or its protagonist, but a book so widely read, so deeply entrenched in our culture, deserves nothing less. Ultimately it is a case of the work having far outgrown its creator; a creator who quickly came to despise both it and the fame it brought him. In that regard the loss of Salinger is already decades old.