A week ago, a hundred thousand candles of memory twinkled across the world, on Facebook statuses, on literary blogs, in earnest conversations between sixteen year olds. J.D. Salinger, iconic novelist, eternal convert and Charlie Chaplin’s cuckold, had died at the ripe old age of ninety-one. Yet many of you could be forgiven for asking just what all the fuss was about. So he wrote a book encapsulating teenage angst and then went into hiding for sixty years; what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that throughout his career Salinger kept the one thing that is essential to every cultural legend: mystique. The Catcher in the Rye itself is as much of an enigma as its author. Its narrator is Holden Caulfield, a rebellious schoolboy who despises the weak figures of authority and ‘phony’ kids around him. Expelled from his prep school, he takes the train to New York, where he spends three days in a blur of loneliness, encountering girls, museums and his old English teacher, all the while his disaffection increasing. He dreams of becoming a noble savage guarding children from the lousy hypocrisy of the adult world: he will wait at the edge of the rye field to ward them away from the cliff.
The book was a Molotov cocktail cast into the middle of postwar America. Caulfield’s instability, his encounter with the prostitute Sunny, and above all the graphic language of his narrative drew savage opprobrium and fanatic admiration to the boy hero. The Catcher in the Rye was the USA’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: a teacher was fired for putting it on his curriculum, and there was a national censorship controversy. For his devotees, Caulfield was the original icon of teenage angst, and he is thought to have inspired cult films like The Graduate, Donnie Darko and Igby Goes Down. Billy Wilder, Jack Nicholson and Leonardo di Caprio are all thought to have begged Salinger for the chance to play Caulfield in a film adaptation.
Salinger, as laconic as his fictional creation, bluntly refused. He published more than thirty stories during his long career, but something of Caulfield’s wariness and misanthropy clung to him, and he was a notorious recluse. After fighting in the D-Day campaign alongside Ernest Hemingway, he was admitted to an army hospital with severely shaken nerves. It was in that same year that Caulfield made his first appearance, in a short story simply titled I’m Crazy. The Catcher in the Rye followed in 1951, and spent thirty weeks on the bestseller list. From then on, he isolated himself and his young wife in New Hampshire and dabbled in short stories and a bewildering sequence of faiths, from Buddhism to Hinduism to Dianetics. He stopped publishing in 1967, although he jealously hoarded a great wealth of unpublished material. He shunned attention so much that his family would not hold a service when he died.
He once remarked that he was ‘in this world, but not of it’: much of his cult came from this otherworldliness, this brooding, Byronic charisma that bled from his life into his books, or perhaps vice versa. Intransigent, brilliant, lunatic: the world tends to remember men who defy it, and Salinger will not easily be forgotten.