I have not been sad over an author’s death since the passing of Hunter S. Thompson, in 2005. A friend, who didn’t even like him but knew that I did, told me in passing during coffee. I didn’t believe them. I grabbed the paper in the coffee shop to see if it was true – it was. I couldn’t believe they knew before me. I felt slighted. I felt like my best friend had been dead a week and nobody had bothered to contact me.
I learned of J.D. Salinger’s death last night, via a friend’s Facebook status update, “RIP J.D. Salinger”. I had just returned home after playing squash. I thought I would check Facebook before heading to bed. I saw the update, then went and typed Salinger’s name in to Google. The news online confirmed it.
Once again, I felt slighted. But that wasn’t it. I felt very vulnerable also. Why? Well, it’s like this…
Salinger’s true gift as a writer was his ability to connect with the reader. In my copy of The Catcher in the Rye (TCITR) I have highlighted many personally poignant passages. My initials sit next to sentences that describe myself better than I ever could. I have so many paragraphs underlined and pages dog-eared, it looks like an old phone book from a New York telephone booth.
Every bit of news I read, reporting his death or acknowledging his contribution to modern literature, quotes TCITR. Upon reading these posts, I couldn’t help but feel exposed. Suddenly the ideas and sentiments that have made me feel understood, and un-alien, were there for the world to see. The phonies could read my thoughts.
I didn’t know how to cope. I didn’t want to share. I regressed in to this child-like state where I felt he belonged to me and nobody else. “They don’t understand him like I do”, I thought. “they are just acting like they care, like they know. They don’t; they’re phonies.” As odd, and childish, as it sounds, if by some magic miracle, I could have made everyone overlook his death, I would done it. I don’t want a bunch of stupid rubber necks looking at him.
Where does this possessiveness stem from? It’s that connection. While reading TCITR, I felt Holden Caulfield was the literary embodiment of me. I had the same insecurities, vulnerability, and suspicions of the adult world as Holden. I identified with Holden’s character so much that there was a time when I wanted to name my first-born after him. (That sentiment lasted until I moved to Australia and decided, despite the literary merit I don’t want to name my kid after a car.)
Right now, I’m feeling a bit raw. I’m sad over his death – it’s always sad when someone “close to you” dies. However, he was 91. I imagine he lived a long and happy life.
Even though he hasn’t published anything since the 1960’s he continued to write. One thing that can result from his death, depending on the wishes of his estate, is the publication of these writings.
While he was alive Salinger sought isolation and privacy. He became a recluse. From what I understand, this is why he didn’t want to publish any more books; he didn’t want the public attention. After Orwell’s death his family were allowed to publish any of his writings, in hopes that it would help provide for them after he was gone. I wonder if Salinger has given the same allowance. Anything published right now, with his name on it, would bring in lots of money for his estate. The Catcher in the Rye has sold over 60 million copies. Anything new would be an instant hit.
At this moment, I think that’s what Salinger’s death really means. 50 years ago he removed himself from the spotlight of those seeking answers. In The Catcher in the Rye Salinger brought forth the discontent and alienation of youth. He showed why it is tough to grow up. But he didn’t show how to cope. Those who connected so strongly with this book want to know how.
Whether or not he has the answer is a different question, but, if anything, right now Salinger’s death gives hope.