Monday, March 1, 2010

It's Always a Perfect Day for Bananafish

The first issue of The Hillsdale Forum is came out last week, but I've been so busy, I hadn't thought to post my article. I wrote an article on gays in the military and how it is not the same thing or concept as the same-sex marriage debate but have decided to hold it over for the next issue or keep it for the talk I am giving in March or April to the Fairfield Society.

Instead, I wrote up a piece on J.D. Salinger's recent demise after reading too many half-baked articles about the man and his works. I'll spare you my recent qualms with The New Yorker et al., but I am pleased with the final product and am thus sharing with the class. And a very happy March 1st. Let the madness begin!

"Cornish, NH Revisited: Reflecting on the death of a misunderstood American misanthrope"

By Julie Robison, Editor in Chief

There are two kinds of people: those who love J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and those who fling the book against the wall.

I first heard of Salinger in junior high when my teacher mentioned “Catcher” as a book we shouldn’t read until we were older. That summer, I found it in the local bookstore while on vacation in northern Michigan. I bought it, read it, and loved it. In high school, I read “Nine Stories,” a collection of superb short stories, half of which involve the Glass family (who are as dysfunctional as the Caulfields, only better developed). From there I devoured “Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters,” “Seymour, an Introduction,” “Franny and Zooey” and any other writing I could find by or about him.

J.D. Salinger died on January 27, 2010. It should not have been surprising, considering the man was 91 years old. Out came the Salingerites, spewing their adoration into reflective essays and obituaries. Most of the time, they completely missed the point of his stories; the writers seemed to like the feelings Salinger's stories aroused in them more than liking his actual words, dismissing or misinterpreting at their own discretion. If I am mistaken in this assessment, then Salinger was the beginning of the teen angst genre. And I refuse to call J.D. Salinger the inspiration for Meg Cabot novels or the Twilight series.

America has long been infatuated with Salinger, a recluse with the inability to bullshit. Salinger didn’t want the limelight; he wanted to write. Those who looked for Salinger were oftentimes justly disappointed that their disrespect for his privacy did not reap a fruitful chance meeting with the esteemed writer.

Furthermore, Salinger’s writing was not merely whining about shallow situations, feelings or “phonies.” His major themes draw upon the differences between being a child and being an adult. He explored American culture: the loss of innocence and a pressure to grow-up faster; an inability to handle trauma or suffering; religion and spirituality.

Adam Gopnik’s assertion in The New Yorker that “writing, real writing, is done not from some seat of fussy moral judgment but with the eye and ear and heart” is a prime example of missing the point: Salinger’s stories do make moral judgments. His stories allude to moral codes, and while "judging" today has negative connotations, that does not diminish its presence in his plots. Whether the reader wants to see it or not is another issue.

Seymour Glass, for instance, had a nice life, but killed himself while on vacation with his beautiful wife. Holden Caulfield did not leave his prep school and then slum around New York City as a mere act of rebellion: he’s having a nervous breakdown. Teddy voluntarily submits to death; Franny is having a religious awakening and her boyfriend only cares about having sex; Esme spells out words because her little brother can’t handle the fact that the war has made them orphans. Failure to recognize the seriousness of his characters’ conditions is a failure to understand the essence of Salinger.

Salinger produced literature. He did not provide psychiatric help or analysis for hundreds of thousands of teenagers. It is an oversimplification to say Salinger’s works were only a reflection of a post-WW II America, but it would be a literary fallacy to say “Catcher” is mediocre pulp fiction not worth reading. The key is to read beyond “Catcher,” into his short stories and novellas, to better understand the moral void in American youth he was attempting to address.

If Salinger is only to be remembered for one book, then “The Catcher in the Rye” is theoretically not a bad choice. His death is a reminder of his significance to America (although the irony of paying public tribute to such a private person should not be overlooked) and his merit goes beyond his writing: he compelled generations of people to read and think, if only to wonder where the ducks at Central Park go during the winter.

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