Swans Commentary » swans.com February 8, 2010  



Vignettes On J.D. Salinger


by Various Swans Authors

Charles Marowitz, Peter Byrne, Louis Proyect, Art Shay,
Walter Trkla, Gilles d'Aymery, Milo Clark





[Ed. Based upon a suggestion by Charles Marowitz, we asked our regular contributors to write about J.D. Salinger in 200 words more or less. They all hit the mark pretty well, except for one lonely minimalist entry.]


(Swans - February 8, 2010)  


Salinger's Past and Future -- by Charles Marowitz


J.D. Salinger's greatest bequest was to have captured that delicate dangerous zone of experience wherein the adolescent, by relinquishing the magical clarity of his teenage sensibility, is expected to graduate into the repressive world of adulthood; the time of their lives when they are expected to stop daydreaming and adjust themselves to the dog-eat-dog reality of manhood. It is at such a time when freedom morphs into compromise and the bucking broncos of youth are replaced with the cautionary lapdogs of grown-up behavior. It is the greatest sacrifice that young persons ever make. Salinger, to his credit, never accepted that compromise. He chose to sit it out in New Hampshire, curled up with his muse and conscious that "joining the crowd" meant sacrificing the best part of oneself to all the strictures, conformities and deceits of adulthood.

The works that comprise his oeuvre, and those manuscripts which we are led to believe he left behind unpublished, may well be the purest of all of Salinger's output and if this is true, the posthumous writer may usher in a dazzling "second act" in a profession in which most people believe there are no second acts. - The posthumous Salinger lives on not only to be read but passionately anticipated.


Holden's Misstep -- by Peter Byrne


Salinger's accomplishment was to express the anxiety of bright adolescents in the growing complications of post-WWII life. He touched young readers by a convincing monolog style that mixed the small-talk of knowing kids with the big ideas that circulated in the Great Books cult. Humor sprang from his character Holden's insight into the falsity of much of the adult world.

That insight cheapened in stories after The Catcher in the Rye. The creation of the Glass family set up an us-and-them division of humanity. It was as if Holden imagined the various ways he might turn out as an adult. But his imagination -- and Salinger's -- remained that of a boy, lively but callow, susceptible to any elite trend going. The Glasses, unmitigated by cunning monologs, are cutesy, unreal, and embarrassing.

Salinger's most incisive critic, Mary McCarthy, found fault with his exclusiveness. She too had dried up as a writer of fiction. But while Salinger lapsed into spiteful silence, she gave testimony in books like Vietnam and Hanoi. Eastern religion hadn't tamed Salinger's ego. His exertions to control his image were pure egoism. A genuine swami would have squatted smirking, indifferent to our thoughts of his state of undress.


A Lesser Impact, With a Market -- by Louis Proyect


I read The Catcher in the Rye in 1961 as a Bard College freshman. By then, I was a full-fledged member of the post-beat subculture and had been initiated to its A-list novelists and poets, from Jack Kerouac to Herman Hesse. As such, I found myself a bit underwhelmed by this tale of an alienated prep school student. While I had drunk from the bitter well of alienation myself, it was difficult to identify with such a scion of privilege.

Franny and Zooey made even less of an impact. Even though I was becoming more and more intrigued with Eastern religion, as we called it back then, I found the characters' spiritual yearnings even more difficult to identify with than Holden Caulfield's flight from "phoniness." Looking back at the characters with hindsight, I suppose that I was put off by their narcissism. Indeed, I reacted to Salinger in much the same way I reacted to Woody Allen's "serious" movies. Spiritual yearnings and neurotic tics do have a way of making me look at my watch. All that being said, nobody can deny Salinger's ongoing influence. For as long as there are alienated teenagers, there will be a market for Salinger's prose.


Mutatis Mutandis -- by Art Shay


The goddam elastic adage, like a piece of David Copperfield crap, goes: anyone with a sensitive stomach is ill advised to observe the making of sausage, politics, gay love, or books. Especially books -- because critics who refuse to judge a book per se, fuck around and all by inexpertly extending the lifelines in an author's hand, heart, youth, penis, or vagina onto the page. Like: "Of course Salinger sprang from a mixed marriage in which ... bullshit bullshit -- and his siblings became atheists and failures, except three of them, including J.D., whose acne and disastrous multi-school background colors every page of his masterpiece..."

Salinger, like any good writer, wrote and stopped because, mutatis mutandis, he had to.

In a lead New York Times review today of Patti Smith's wild autobiography -- so redolent of Holden Caulfield's, give or take the schools and pre-gay Robert Maplethorpe, and all -- Tom Carson wisely concludes, "This enchanting book is a reminder that not all youthful vainglory is silly: sometime it's preparation..."

In some mysterious way most authors, like some small reptiles, swallow entire chunks of provender bigger than they are, then proceed to digest and eventually extrude their life's corpus. Or not.


Salinger, Zinn, and the Phonies -- by Walter Trkla


The deaths of J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn went unnoticed in our local newspaper. Both authors were vilified and censored by establishment phonies. They snubbed the cultural measurement of success. Their writing honored working people. Salinger, like his character Holden Caulfield, did not tolerate or pander to the phonies...and Zinn exposed them. Salinger, in his writing, maintained the honesty and sincerity that he did not find in others. He rejected many traditional American ideals, and scoffed at the world where phonies are promoted and honored in a society dominated by phoniness.

Salinger's Holden fought the battles. Zinn exposed them. Zinn, like Holden, abhorred artificiality and lies. He wanted history to not "fade into mist and the past to be erased" or "lie to become the truth." He willed to insure that "erasure was not forgotten." He knew that phonies hang real heroes while the media and its owners elevated phonies into heroes. May young people hear Zinn's message: "My hope is that you will not be content just to be successful in the way our society measures success; that you will not obey the rules, when the rules are unjust; that you will act out the courage that I know is in you."


If You Want to Know the Truth -- by Gilles d'Aymery


I was not holding together too well in the late 1960s when an older lady friend -- my own Mrs. Antolini -- handed me L'Attrape-cœurs, the French translation of The Catcher in the Rye. I can state incontrovertibly it's goddam Holden who's responsible for my voluntary exile to the USA in 1982.

"It was cold as a witch's teat" in the winter of '83. I walked to the frozen pond in Central Park to see where the ducks had gone. They were sitting on the ice gently fluffing their feathers and all. Take that Holden! Five years later, before departing from Manhattan and moving as far west as possible, I drove to Cornish, N.H., where Salinger lived in seclusion. I wanted him to account for my life-long wandering. The gate was closed, the six-foot-high fence threatening. I turned back. Now, I cannot move further west without "falling off a crazy cliff," there, there in Mendocino, with no catcher in the rye to save me.

Then, there is this "little cabin" where I live, increasingly agoraphobic and reclusive, far, far away from "any goddam stupid conversation with" the phonies.

It's all meaningless and soulless, "if you want to know the truth."


Minimalism -- by Milo Clark


Salinger, 91, dies. J.D. Salinger, a very naughty boy, leaves us. Again. This time for real. He reported our world. He modeled our world. He changed our world.


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About the Authors

Charles Marowitz on Swans -- with bio.
Louis Proyect on Swans -- with bio.
Peter Byrne on Swans -- with bio.
Art Shay is the author-photographer of more than fifty books.
Walter Trkla is a retired high school teacher of world history, law, and economics.
Gilles d'Aymery on Swans -- with bio. He is Swans' publisher and co-editor.
Milo Clark on Swans -- with bio.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 8, 2010