What do say at a moment like this? In a way, we’ve felt Salinger’s loss for years — the great author in seclusion in rural New England. Occasionally, though, evidence of his existence seeped out — a photograph of him at the supermarket, maybe, pushing a cart like a mortal, like a person who needed milk and carrots. He gave the world four books and assorted short stories, but his legacy far outweighs the volume of his output. His novel Catcher in the Rye, as I’ve noted before, served as many people’s entry into the world of literary fiction. It was that rare novel that everyone read, either in school or on their own. For many, it was a watershed moment that led to a lifetime of reading. For others still it was the beginning of something else, a life spent trying to create something like it.
Start where most of us did: with the iconic covers. Catcher in the Rye, depending on when one found it, featured a brilliant red-orange carousel. It looked to me like an angry book at the time, and of course it is. And his other paperbacks were studies in simplicity. All white, with those rainbow stripes in the corner. They were striking; they stood out from the other cluttered books on the school library shelves, with their illustrations, their boasting. A Salinger book didn’t need to boast, it didn’t need to announce itself. If one were to encounter them now, the comparison would be easy to make: they’re like the Google homepage.
And what was inside those books was incredible. I was, maybe, an atypical reader, in that I didn’t devour the young adult literature of the time. I can’t recall reading and enjoying a book before my sophomore year of high school, and Salinger’s work — not just Catcher, but the dazzling, wonderful story collection Nine Stories — was one of the first books to turn me on to reading. For that, I’m forever grateful. Salinger’s characters weren’t like me, per se, but they were identifiable as people, often extraordinary people. His books had a meaning that wasn’t immediately apparent; they resisted my teenage insistence on simplicity — either this or that. They were simultaneously funny and sad, a combination that would prove to be a favorite of mine ever after.
The man was fascinating as well. For one thing, he was gone. After a wildly successful literary career, he retreated from the public eye. A bit of a religious schizophrenic (he even dabbled, briefly, in Scientology), the influence of Vedantic Hinduism can be seen in his work and his life, as he withdrew from many of the obligations and trappings of the modern world, his status as the literary world’s foremost recluse secure. He hid without Thomas Pynchon’s playfulness, without that winking desire to be noticed. Indeed, at times, he seemed to have a disdain for his readers, fighting vociferously, at times, to keep new books from surfacing (as was his right, it should be said). His ambivalence about publishing only enhanced his mythology. It’s difficult to imagine an author pulling the same trick in this day and age. The world has changed too much.
Whatever his beliefs were at the end, I hope Salinger died at peace with his family and friends. I think it’s a safe bet he didn’t worry much about his legacy, and with good reason — he didn’t need to.