So here’s my thing with J. D. Salinger. For me, it all started with how irritating Holden Caulfield was. His character development didn’t really matter, though understanding the character as an ironic commentary on the quest for sincerity alleviated this somewhat. Despite my detatched view of Holden, I can never avoid holding him in contempt myself. He has a vision of a perfect world, and then holds the world in absolute contempt because it won’t conform to his vision. And I can’t get past the stupendous immaturity of that worldview.
And also, there’s Mark David Chapman.
The reclusiveness of his life was a major irritant for me as well. Now, I’ve also become a big Thomas Pynchon fan, so you may ask about any hypocrisy between my love of Pynchon and my irritation by Salinger over the reclusiveness. There’s a difference between the two in their hiding. Pynchon isn’t belligerent about his reclusiveness. He lives in New York state like a normal person. He just isn’t photographed. I mean, Pynchon was on The Simpsons making fun of his own reclusiveness. His animated self was wearing a paper bag over his head standing next to a huge sign that directed you to his house, while he flagged people down on the highway to “Get your picture taken with a reclusive author!” Pynchon could joke about his hideaway along with you.
Salinger didn’t just hide in his house; he hid with a snarl of contempt for anyone who would even approach him. He refused to publish anything, despite it eventually becoming general knowledge that he was still working even while he lived off the substantial royalties still collected from Catcher. If it was perfectionism, it infested him to the point where it became almost pointless. Despite writing huge amounts, no one ever saw it, and there were doubts that anyone ever would.
Oh yeah, and Mark David Chapman.
This is the other, more sympathetic reason Salinger never published. From the very moment when Catcher was published, people sympathized with Holden Caulfield, to the point where they sincerely took on his contempt for the phony, for hypocrites, into their own lives. But they didn’t realize that the whole point of Holden’s character was to show the futility of a life that refuses to compromise with even the minor hypocrisies and inconsistencies that are necessary for life in the world. Now here were people taking Holden Caulfield of all people as a role model?
The worst of these worshipers of Holden, if we’re talking about consequences unintended by the author, was Mark David Chapman. This was a mentally disturbed man who needed help and guidance, and found it in a directly literal understanding of Holden Caulfield’s acidic contempt for phonies, for people who say they have one belief, but live according to another. The paradigm phony for Chapman was John Lennon, who professed values of peace and love while living the high life in a New York penthouse and going through long periods of Hollywood lifestyles and drug abuse. Chapman considered himself a hero worthy of Holden, and Salinger, when he rid the world of that ultimate phony.
Mark David fucking Chapman.
If I’ve learned anything about literature, it’s that great literature has no ideology. Whatever instruction manual you find in a genuinely great work of art is whatever you bring there yourself. You can read Oliver Twist entirely accurately as a condemnation of exploitation in the name of profit, and a celebration of the self-made capitalist working his way up from the bottom. And you’d be right both times, no matter what Dickens himself might have thought. A writer can only be responsible for the words s/he writes, but never how those words are understood, taken up, and carried forward. Maybe Salinger really did intend to indict Holden for his myopically selfish idiocy, but there were a lot of people who came to Catcher struggling for a way of living that could approach authenticity, consistency, coherence, and truth without hypocrisy. Holden may have been an egotistical fool to me, but he was a mirror to millions more. Really, Holden Caulfield and a self-absorbed teenager just reflect each other.
That, I think, was Salinger’s goal in writing. He saw a kind of innocence in youth that was washed away by the compromises of adulthood, and all his books tried to capture that adolescent innocence. But the innocence of youth, the innocence of a life that doesn’t yet have to make deals in a tough and messy world, is an innocence of extremism. It’s a refusal to compromise, a demand that the world be just as I want it to be because it is right that it be right and I am right to make it right! To deal with that world, to move among it and negotiate it, is just that: a negotiation. Life in the world entails compromises, and in the second half of his life that Salinger spent away from the world, he compromised nothing.
Really, Salinger will always be associated with Holden for just this reason. It wasn’t just that Holden is his most iconic character in popular consciousness. Holden was a character whose very existence, A Catcher in the Rye, was defined by his incredible sincerity, consumed by his yearning for a perfect and totally fair world. That’s an incredible dream to have. But learning to let go of that dream and understand the universe as being great precisely because it can never be perfect, because it is a place of disorder and craziness and compromise, that’s the sign of a mature personality, of someone who can be joyful in the deepest, strongest, most true sense.