by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one."... ...J.D. Salinger.
Commentary of the Day - February 28, 2010: Salinger and Me. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
J.D. Salinger, the notoriously private author of the definitive novel about teenage angst (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951) died recently at the ripe old age of 91, and pundits everywhere have speculated about the arc of his odd life. Let me begin by confessing (a) that I did not know Salinger, (b) that I did not correspond with him, and (c) that I wouldn't tell you even if a and b were true. What I can talk about are the interesting ways that my life and Salinger's interacted.
Because I grew up in a small, backwater town in southwestern Pennsylvania, nobody brought The Catcher in the Rye to my attention when I was in high school -- not my English teachers nor any of my friends. Mickey Spillane was as racy as my crowd knew about and could handle. When I got to college, in l959, I heard about Salinger's novel and raced out to buy a paperback copy. I loved it, and soon added Nine Stories (l953) to my Salinger holdings.
I was hardly the only creative writing student who made sure that every story I submitted ended in a suicide. After all, if that dodge could work so well in "A Perfect Day For Bananafish," it might work for me. It didn't. The point, my teacher patiently explained, was not to redeem a dull story in its last out-of-the-blue sentence but, rather, to build toward that climax by an accretion of significant detail.
As a graduate student in English I followed the Glass family through every one of its (overly) sensitive turns -- that is, until I read "Hapworth 16, 1924," a very long story that ran in the June l965 issue of The New Yorker. It had, put charitably, a very high pretention index; and, I figured that this was the end of Salinger's fiction -- at least for me. As things turned out, it was the last piece of writing he ever published. I should have put the New Yorker issue in my save box (no doubt it would fetch a pretty penny on E-bay today). My well-thumbed paperback of Catcher, with a cover showing Holden Caulfield with his ball cap turned backwards, would be even more valuable but I didn't keep that either.
When I became a teacher myself -- this in l967 -- I ran into a few writing students who also killed off a banal character in the final paragraph and then crowed that they were being "Salingeresque." I remembered to treat them kindly and to explain, as it had been explained to me, that all the details in a story must move toward an inevitable conclusion.
So far, so good. Then, the l970s hit our campus with full force; and, I found myself having to "beg" (there is no other good word for it) a students arts committee for a few bucks to bring in some visiting writers. My department was cash-strapped at the time; and, the Dean suggested that the committee could use my help in terms of getting a couple of good writers to the campus.
Fair enough, I thought. Armed with a few names (writers I knew personally, writers I had reviewed positively), I went to the committee meeting and unpacked my wares.
That's when I discovered one of the uglier aspects of the New Left -- namely, that college committees were packed with people who would have been right at home under Stalinism. These 19-year-olds held the purse strings and that gave them power. "Never heard of these guys," one of them said. "But that's exactly the point," I replied. "College is a good place to hear new voices that you just might fall in love with."
My arguments didn't fly. The two writers most students want to see on campus are, I was told, were J.D. Salinger and Sylvia Plath. "Get them and we'll get you the money." Unfortunately, Plath, who had died in 1963, was not available, nor was Salinger, for very different reasons. I assured them that if I did get Salinger to appear on campus, we'd have the entire East Coast packed into our largest auditorium. They told me to try hard. I said that I would,
I haven't a clue as to why Salinger guarded his privacy as strenuously as he did. No doubt Salinger scholars hope to find answers if, and when, his letters and manuscripts are released to the public. My hunch is that his family will guard the flame and keep out the gawkers -- as Salinger himself would have wanted, and so far as I'm concerned, as it should be. I have the pages of Catcher and, for me, that's enough -- as they always were.
© 2010, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days and occasionally reviews manuscripts for publishers.
The Irascible Professor comments: The IP read Catcher in the Rye a very, very long time ago, and supposes that it might seem very dated now. Nevertheless, it captured the stirrings of the '50s perfectly. The IP would also remind his friend Sandy that the "New Right" and the "New Left" both can be fairly Stalinist in their respective world-views.