The death of J.D. Salinger at the age of 91 seems as unreal as the life of the man whose literary wounds were perversely exposed, first through his distilled stories and then through a frustrated, self-imposed silence, for multiple generations.
It was a unipolar cultural world, leavened by the deaths of World War II, which Salinger and James Dean and Elvis Presley and Jackson Pollock appeared to remake, for their revolution was really the revanchist last gasp of the American white male. Holden Caulfield wandered through life looking backwards, at a dead brother, a precocious sister, a professor who tried to fondle him and a desperate hooker. Who could anticipate that these would emerge as the central characters of American life, pushing the snot-nosed preppy aside forever?
Salinger was an assimilated Jew who followed the U.S. Army through the Battle of the Bulge, interrogating prisoners and disposing of the dead as an intelligence officer. In his uncomfortable role as a Park Avenue suitor and then a country squire, he dated Oona O'Neill and Gloria Vanderbilt, followed by a succession of "perfect" young ladies, including the young writer Joyce Maynard. He spread his fragile personality all over them, into the aptly named Glass family of his greatest fiction and to the service of New Yorker editor William Shawn and whole series of vedantic gurus.
As a man and a writer, Salinger's theme was "let's get lost," a soul so burdened and overburnished as to repel Dante himself. And a soul that left a small residue of the some of the greatest, most distilled and depressing writing ever produced in America. As Abelard, who was castrated for his love, said to Eloise, "Let me tell you of my troubles." For Salinger, whose legacy will now explode into our media supernova with all the force he spent a lifetime resisting, the troubles are over.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).