J. D. Salinger

By Gopnik, Adam | The New Yorker, February 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

J. D. Salinger


Gopnik, Adam, The New Yorker


J. D. Salinger's long silence, and his withdrawal from the world, attracted more than the usual degree of gossip and resentment--as though we readers were somehow owed more than his words, were somehow owed his personal, talk-show presence, too--and fed the myth of the author as homespun religious mystic. Yet though he may seem to have chosen a hermit's life, Salinger was no hermit on the page. And so his death throws us back from the myth to the magical world of his writing as it really is, with its matchless comedy, its ear for American speech, its contagious ardor and incomparable charm. Salinger's voice--which illuminated and enlivened these pages for two decades--remade American writing in the fifties and sixties in a way that no one had since Hemingway. (The juvenilia of most American writers since bear the mark of one or the other.) But if it had been Hemingway's role to make American writing hardboiled, it was Salinger's to let it be soft, even runny, again.

"For Esme--with Love and Squalor," which appeared here in the issue of April 8, 1950, is an account of the horror and battle shock of the Second World War--which the young Salinger fought during some of its worst days and battles--only to end, amazingly, with the offer of an antidote: the simple, direct, and uncorrupted speech that young Esme's letter holds out to the no longer entirely broken narrator. It was the comedy, the overt soulfulness, the high-hearted (to use an adjective he liked) romantic openness of the early Salinger stories that came as such a revelation to readers. The shine of Fitzgerald and the sound of Ring Lardner haunted these pages, but it was Salinger's readiness to be touched, and to be touching, his hypersensitivity to the smallest sounds and graces of life, which still startles. Suicides and strange deaths happen in his stories--one shattering story is devoted to the back and forth on the telephone between a betrayed husband and the man in bed with his wife at that very moment--but their tone is alive with an appetite for experience as it is, and the certainty that religious epiphanies will arise from such ordinary experience. A typical Salinger hero is the little boy who confuses "kike" with "kite," in "Down at the Dinghy"--who thinks that his father has been maliciously compared to "one of those things that go up in the air. . . . With string you hold."

Salinger was an expansive romantic, an observer of the details of the world, and of New York in particular; no book has ever captured a city better than "The Catcher in the Rye" captured New York in the forties. Has any writer ever had a better ear for American talk? (One thinks of the man occupying the seat behind Holden Caulfield at Radio City Music Hall, who, watching the Rockettes, keeps saying to his wife, "You know what that is? That's precision.") A self-enclosed writer doesn't listen, and Salinger was a peerless listener: page after page of pure talk flowed out of him, moving and true and, above all, funny. He was a humorist with a heart before he was a mystic with a vision, or, rather, the vision flowed from the humor. That was the final almost-moral of "Zooey," the almost-final Salinger story to appear in these pages: Seymour's Fat Lady, who gives art its audience, is all of us.

As for Holden Caulfield, he is so much a part of the lives of his readers that he is more a person to phone up than a character to analyze. …

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