An Appraisal | J. D. Salinger
Of Teen Angst and an Author’s Alienation
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Published: January 28, 2010
What really knocked readers out about “The Catcher in the Rye” was the wonderfully immediate voice that J. D. Salinger fashioned for Holden Caulfield — a voice that enabled him to channel an alienated 16-year-old’s thoughts and anxieties and frustrations, a voice that skeptically appraised the world and denounced its phonies and hypocrites and bores.
Mr. Salinger had such unerring radar for the feelings of teenage angst and vulnerability and anger that “Catcher,” published in 1951, remains one of the books that adolescents first fall in love with — a book that intimately articulates what it is to be young and sensitive and precociously existential, a book that first awakens them to the possibilities of literature.
Whether it’s Holden or the whiz-kid Glass children or the shell-shocked soldier in “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor,” Mr. Salinger’s people tend to be outsiders — spiritual voyagers shipwrecked in a vulgar and materialistic world, misfits who never really outgrew adolescent feelings of estrangement. They identify with children and cling to the innocence of childhood with a ferocity bordering on desperation: Holden wants to be the catcher in the rye, who keeps kids from falling off a cliff; Seymour communes with a little girl on the beach about bananafish, before going upstairs to his hotel room and shooting himself in the head.
Such characters have a yearning for some greater spiritual truth, but they are also given to an adolescent either/or view of the world and tend to divide people into categories: the authentic and the phony, those with an understanding of “the main current of poetry that flows through things” and those coarse, unenlightened morons who will never get it — a sprawling category, it turns out, that includes everyone from pompous college students parroting trendy lit crit theories to fashionable, well-fed theater-goers to self-satisfied blowhards who recount every play in a football game or proudly wear tattersall vests.
Like Franny, Mr. Salinger’s people feel that “everything everybody does is so — I don’t know — not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and — sad-making.”
Mr. Salinger was able to empathetically limn the nooks and crannies of his youthful narrator’s psyches, while conjuring up a sophisticated, post-F. Scott Fitzgerald, post-World War II Manhattan — a world familiar to his New Yorker readers, bounded by Radio City Music Hall and Bergdorf Goodman and Central Park (where Holden wonders about the ducks on the lagoon and where they go when it freezes over in the winter). In doing so, he not only domesticated the innovations of the great modernists — their ability to manipulate stream of consciousness, to probe their characters’ inner lives — but he also presaged the self-inventorying characters of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, and the navel-gazing musings of the writers of many Me Generations to come.
Some critics dismissed the easy surface charm of Mr. Salinger’s work, accusing him of cuteness and sentimentality, but works like “Catcher,” “Franny and Zooey” and his best-known short stories would influence successive generations of writers. His most persuasive work showcased his colloquial, idiomatic language, his uncanny gift for ventriloquism, his nimble ability to create stories within stories, as well as his unerring ear for cosmopolitan New Yorkese (what he called an “Ear for the Rhythms and Cadences of Colloquial Speech”) and his heat-seeking eye for the telling gesture — the nervously lit cigarette, the X-ray look, the inhibited station-platform kiss.
Like Holden Caulfield, the Glass children — Franny, Zooey, Buddy, Seymour, Boo Boo, Walt, Waker — would emerge as avatars of adolescent angst and Mr. Salinger’s own alienated stance toward the world. Bright, charming and gregarious, they are blessed with their creator’s ability to entertain, and they appeal to the reader to identify with their braininess, their sensitivity, their febrile specialness. And yet as details of their lives unfurl in a series of stories, it becomes clear that there is a darker side to their estrangement as well: a tendency to condescend to the vulgar masses, an almost incestuous familial self-involvement and a difficulty relating to other people that will result in emotional crises and in Seymour’s case, suicide. “Neither you nor Buddy know how to talk to people you don’t like,” Zooey’s mother says, adding, “You can’t live in the world with such strong likes and dislikes.”
Over time, Mr. Salinger’s work grew more elliptical. Tidy, well-made tales like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” gave way to the increasingly prolix “Zooey” and the shapeless ruminations of “Seymour — An Introduction.” And as his Glass stories grew more and more self-conscious and self-referential, readers became increasingly aware of the solipsism of that hothouse family of geniuses.
“Seymour” is a long, vexing monologue by Buddy Glass about his late brother that coyly conflates the identity of Buddy and Mr. Salinger (playing the sort of mirror games that Mr. Roth would play with his semiautobiographical heroes). And “Hapworth 16, 1924” (which appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1965) takes the form of a verbose, digression-filled letter ostensibly written from summer camp by the 7 -year-old Seymour. The story actually serves as a revisionist history of the Glass family and a sort of defensive gibe by Mr. Salinger at his critics. Having been accused of loving his characters too much, of being too superficially charming, the author gave us a new take on one of his heroes, turning the once saintly Seymour — the family’s “blue-striped unicorn,” “consultant genius” and “portable conscience” — into an obnoxious child given to angry outbursts and implausible intellectual boasts.
That story — the last work published during the author’s lifetime — not only reflected Mr. Salinger’s own Glass-like withdrawal from the world but also underscored his own fear that he might one day “disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms.” Yet however sour and self-reflexive that tale was, it would never eclipse the achievement of “Catcher” in the minds of Mr. Salinger’s fans — a novel that still knocks people out, a novel, if you really want to hear about it, that is still cherished, nearly six decades after its publication, for its pitch-perfect portrait of adolescence and its indispensable hero.
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A version of this article appeared in print on January 29, 2010, on page A23 of the New York edition.