Saturday, January 30, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Salinger Legend

"...the only people he ever really wants to meet for a drink somewhere are all either dead or unavailable. He says he never even wants to have lunch with anybody, even, unless he thinks there’s a good chance it's going to turn out to be Jesus, the person – or the Buddha, or Hui-neng, or Shankaracharya, or somebody like that.”
~Franny and Zooey

When I read the news of J.D. Salinger's death the other day, it struck me with a kind of mild surprise. It caught me off guard not because it was untimely (after all, he was 91, a ripe old age by pretty much anybody's standards), but because it was there so baldly, incontestably, definitively, pervading the news, infesting the internet.

Salinger, who like Thomas Pynchon persistently embodied James Joyce's description of the writer as rooted in “silence, exile and cunning,” would doubtless have been irritated, but unsurprised, by all the attention. It is completely irrational, I realize (especially given the recent return of his name to the news for litigious reasons), but some long stretch of my subconscious expected that Salinger's death would occur like that of a nameless monk in a distant monastery - shrouded in quiet, calm, and unacknowledged by the currents of busy bodies surging outside. The world would learn of it only much later, ripples of rumour moving outward first, followed by a gradual revelation of the fact.

Aside from being a testament to my persistent Quixotism, this imaginary tendency also raises what I think is an interesting point about Salinger's literary celebrity. A number of the obit-esque bi(bli)o-notices I've read over the past couple of days have referred to the death of a "legendary" American author (you can read one of the better ones, from the New York Times, here).

Legendary is an adjective aptly pregnant with ambiguity, isn't it? I'd like to consider Salinger's career in terms of three inter-related meanings of this epithetic term.

The semi-omniscient OED's first definition of the term is one that Hemingway, who befriended Salinger while both were in Europe during the Second World War, could well understand the often tragic consequences of: "Pertaining to or of the nature of a legend. " While this is the primary denotation of the word, it is likely not the sense most commentators intend, as there is little doubt of Salinger's existence as a historical personage, unless you happen to be some kind of pomo-onto-anarchist. Still, as my own ideation of his death and numerous ritualistic public eulogies attest (check out The Onion's apt satiric take here), the St. Salinger legend exerts an appeal far larger than the fact of a privacy-loving man.

And, I have to ask myself, who am I to deny Salinger's sainthood? While the contentious biographies by his daughter and ex-wife testify to his selfishness and oddity, they serve only to reinforce that, like his invention Buddy Glass, Salinger was a writer “and consequently, as Kafka, no less, has told us, not a nice man."

The second definition of legendary offered by the OED, which I'd imagine is the one primarily intended by all those journalists and bloggers applying it to Salinger, is "celebrated or related in legend." This sense of the word simply speaks to the enormity of Salinger's reputation, his canonical status, as an American author, and it is this sense of legendary that led, unfortunately for Salinger, to the one previously described.

Salinger's best-known achievement is of course his discovery or re-creation of the language of adolescent alienation in the mid twentieth century through The Catcher in the Rye's eternally-teenaged rebel with all kinds of goddam causes, Holden Caulfield. This book alone insured Salinger a secure position in the history of American letters, and its history of mixed institutional prescription and proscription (being one of the most frequently assigned as well as most frequently censored novels ever written) places it alongside other contentious American classics (all of them, ultimately, are!) such as its chief pre-cursor, Huckleberry Finn, and its many descendents, including Kerouac's On the Road and Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Salinger confessed in the few interviews he gave that the novel involved a great deal of autobiographical content. His early-admitted feeling of relief at having got Holden off his chest, however, quickly soured into a feeling of resentment at the incessant invasions of his privacy the novel's popularity precipitated. He had shared his boyhood with Holden, and through Holden he had shared it with the world, which seemed to want only to gild it, geld it, and refuse to either live it or give it back.

Following Holden Caulfield, Salinger invented and invested himself in the Glass household, with his creation of the sometimes sage and saintly, but ultimately suicidal, Seymour Glass and his family, especially his younger brother and sister, Franny and Zooey. Salinger's devotion to this fictional family has been derided as narcissistic, obsessive and tendentious by many critics (including such an expert on literary narcissism as John Updike). Such complaints seem to me amply addressed by a passage from Seymour: An Introduction:
“You can’t argue with someone who believes, or just passionately suspects, that the poet’s function is not to write what he must write but, rather, to write what he would write if his life depended on his taking responsibility for writing what he must in a style designed to shut out as few of his old librarians as humanly possible.”
Putting Updike et al as well as academic critics (OK, I'm having a moment of masochism here) who mourned Salinger's movement away from "broader social issues" in the place of old librarians does not exactly require a Herculean feat of the imagination. Besides, the greatest testimony to what Salinger achieved with his unflaggingly affectionate portrayal of the neurotically precocious Glass house is the degree to which it casts its long, prolix and lovingly inflected shadow over a great deal of contemporary American literature and film. In particular, the intimate, minute and sometimes startlingly diffuse depictions of the Incandenza family in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (compare, if you have a chance, Franny and Zooey's convos with those of Mario and Hal, especially) and Wes Anderson's quirky quasi-aristocrats in The Royal Tennenbaums leap immediately to mind as creatures which can only be seen through Salinger's Glasses.

This brings me to the OED' s third meaning of legendary, the one that is really primary where Salinger is concerned: "Of writers: Relating legends." This is, after all, what Salinger did to call down like some vampiric curse the two earlier senses of the word: he related legends, stories which gathered together striking perceptions of the world which in turn gathered together millions of readers who felt they could relate to them (those perceptions), which caused them (those readers) to (mistakenly, maybe) try to relate to the writer who managed, maybe without even knowing how he'd done it in the first place, to relate them (those readers) to themselves. While I'm not going to get any closer to making an embarrassing polemic elegy ala "Lycidas" out of Salinger's death than I've already done here, I can totally relate to that.

So...the knowledge that although Salinger the grouchy, reclusive writer guy is gone, the legends he related live on, however phony and cliche it may sound, is sufficient grounds for a certain quiet bliss. A bliss which reminds me of the end of Franny and Zooey's long phone conversation about the Jesus prayer and other matters sacredly profane:
“A dial tone, of course, followed the formal break in the connection. She appeared to find it extraordinarily beautiful to listen to, rather as if it were the best possible substitute for the primordial silence itself.”
That's how I'm listening to the buzz about the Salinger legend, now. Like a kind of dial tone, an echo of the silence Salinger himself finally gets to directly hear.


Jamie Bradley said...

There should be at least a few nice fat books in charting the anxiety of influence between Salinger, Pynchon etc., and Wallace, Franzen, and Chabon, now that mortality is interjecting some more distance.

Anonymous said...

Great article, Sean. Hope you'll write something like that after I die. You've got two weeks.