29 January 2010

Salinger of New Hampshire

We've had to say goodbye to one of our residents, Mr. Salinger.  He wasn't a native, but lots of folks up here aren't, and we try to treat them all the same.  (We don't give them a special sales tax just for them, we don't tell them they can't have guns.)  Mr. Salinger lived pretty close to the border of the People's Republic of Vermont, but he was still one of us, not a dirty commie.  They say he had some peculiar habits, but that was none of our business.

I've been through Cornish, where he lived, but never sought him out.  Folks from the big cities called him a recluse, but I'm not sure that's true.  He didn't go around on book tours, he didn't give lectures, he didn't seek out his fellow scribblers, so therefore he must be crazy, they thought.  Plenty of people said they'd seen him in town.  He and I enjoyed the same library, so we might have roamed the stacks together for all I know.  Not wanting to be pestered, he didn't post his picture up on every telephone pole, and I expect he didn't look much different from all the other men his age around here, stoic and grizzled.  People who knew him, knew him; people who didn't, didn't.

I read all the books when I was an adolescent, or just before.  I started with Catcher in the Rye when I was about 12, and I loved it.  I'd never read anything with such a strong and idiosyncratic voice.  Then my uncle told me it wasn't much of a novel in comparison to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and eventually I read that one, and yes, he was right, but then, most novels aren't much in comparison to A Portrait of the Artist.  Of Salinger's other books, I liked the pieces in Nine Stories best, especially "A Perfect Day for Bananafish".  I haven't read any of them in at least a decade, though.

I twice had to teach Catcher to high school students, 9th graders both times.  I say "had to" because it's not a book I would ever assign of my own free will.  If I were inclined to make students read Salinger, it would be some of the stories.  Catcher should be a book you discover on your own.  It's a perennial favorite of English teachers, though, many of whom encountered it themselves in high school, and now there's a whole industry of study guides and lesson plans to go along with it, making it into a school institution, like little cartons of milk.  Holden Caulfield, hater of schools and phonies, beloved of so many counter-culturists, has been tamed and institutionalized by an infinite battery of tests and quizzes and short essays.  Just as The Great Gatsby is the sanctified text from the first half of the 20th Century for American high schools, so Catcher seems to be the sanctified text from the second half, at least by a writer from the U.S. (Lord of the Flies is the only competition I can think of).  Sure, it gets banned a lot, but that's both a sign of and an aid to its popularity.

None of my students ever admitted liking Catcher to me, and many of them found Holden insufferable.  Maybe it was my fault -- I find Holden insufferable and could live a perfectly contented life without ever rereading the book.  Or maybe it wasn't my fault -- none of my students ever admitted liking Lord of the Flies to me, and that's a novel I gain more respect for every time I read it; conversely, many of my students have enjoyed Gatsby tremendously, and the only thing I much enjoy in it is its last page.  (Lesson learned: I have no effect on my students' opinions of books!)

So yes, I like the idea of J.D. Salinger more than I like most of his writing.  (But the writing was important to me at a particular time in my life, it taught me a lot about voice and point of view, and the short stories strongly influenced my perception of story form.)  I have a lot of respect for writers who stop publishing, even if they are primarily able to do it because some of their books provide more royalties in a year than most writers will see in a lifetime.  Salinger got close to the sun and found its flames too hot, so he hunkered down on the moon.  Reportedly, he kept writing, but felt no need for much of an audience beyond himself.  He let the byline on the four books do his public work for him, and for nearly half a century he, the person, lived a fairly anonymous life in the Granite State, growing old and deaf, occasionally having his army of lawyers send out a sortie of suits, but mostly just trying to keep people from bothering him.  Good for him, I say.

Meanwhile, if you want to glimpse the young J.D. Salinger (the byline, not the man), subscribers of the New Yorker can see digital copies of the first appearances of many of the stories, including the first appearance of Holden Caulfield.  Those of you who don't subscribe to the magazine aren't out of luck, though -- Salinger fans have posted all of the stories at various websites.  Search for one of the unreprinted titles via the Google and you'll find them.  The man himself wouldn't have wanted you to do so -- he spent a lot of money trying to keep anything that wasn't in one of his four books from being reprinted or distributed -- but that's one of the perils of publishing: the byline keeps on living.

2 comments:

  1. I think it would be better if people found Catcher in the Rye on their own instead of in class. But, there you go.

    I've long suspected the main reason why the book is so popular with high school teachers is that Salinger never allowed the sale of the movie rights. It's the one classic that has to be read.

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  2. There are few, if any, books that can survive the resentment of having them assigned and “explained” in a compulsory education setting. There may be a few students in each class who can find something of value in an assigned book. It will likely be a tangential enjoyment: liking what the instructor dismisses in the book and hating what the instructor finds worthwhile, for instance.

    My own strategy was to read a book before it was required, allowing me to develop my own understanding and relationship with the book. If I waited until the instructor began talking about the book it had a deadening effect. The fact that it was obligatory reading, coupled with being told what made it meaningful and relevant, well, it’s hard to imagine a less welcoming environment for a book.

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