Remembering Salinger

Note:  Our local paper kindly published the following letter in the days following J.D. Salinger’s death, on Jan. 27, 2010.

franny-and-zooeyEditor:

I read J.D. Salinger’s books, starting with The Catcher in the Rye, in my formative years in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  What I readily remember of his writings now, decades later, is doubtless a reflection of what I liked most and what made a lasting impression on me.

I remember Holden Caufield vividly, yet there are other parts of Salinger’s oeuvre that spring even more readily to mind.  I remember Franny’s spiritual quest and her realization of the folly of everyone scrambling in their lives to become important, to become a somebody.  (There have been times, especially when I’ve been a little down on my luck, that I’ve blamed Franny and Salinger — also Camus’s The Stranger — for an apparent lack of appropriate careerism and ambition in my life.)

I remember the older, intellectual Glass brothers, with their room’s door or wall posted all over with quotations from the works of great philosophers and writers.  I remember Zooey, handsome Zooey, so handsome that he dare not look himself full face in the medicine chest’s mirror lest he nurture an incipient narcissism – another of Salinger’s blows against errant self-importance.  I remember Salinger’s insightful description of Bessie’s waxing sentimentality in her old age — how her eyes now welled up with tears watching soap operas.  I remember Seymour, as all the Glass family did, and the legacy of his suicide.    

Commentators have said that Holden Caufield gave voice to adolescent alienation and struggle for identity.  Yet there was more to Holden — for example his pity for characters engaged in petty pursuits or petty lives, a pity not always tinged with disparagement,.  There was also an elitism in Holden’s outlook, which in turn lent his voice the authority for its cultural criticism.  I remember For Esme, the shell-shocked Second World War sergeant who became re-acquainted with civility and the beauty of life through his chance acquaintance two British children, Esme, courtly and well-behaved, and her younger brother, a little less so, but endearingly affectionate.  When Salinger’s emotionally shattered sergeant was urged by a fellow soldier to attend a local dance, his sardonic reply, “No thanks, I want to practice a few steps in my room,” still echoes in my memory.

Salinger’s writings defined a universe of Glass family characters attuned to a higher sense of purpose and being.  His characters were caught in a superficial and uncaring world, but they nevertheless created meaning, sometimes in long and affectionate letters to one another.  The effort congealed in writing those letters itself helped convey their affection and concern for one another.  In his stories of the Glass family and its precocious children Salinger achieved a transparency that made both their authenticity and their fragility available to all of us.

— Ron Roizen, Wallace

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