January 16, 2019

The Timelessness of J.D. Salinger

“The first literary anniversary of 2019 will be one of the biggest: Jan. 1 marks the centenary of J.D. Salinger. (To mark the occasion, his four books are being reissued in a boxed set by Little Brown.) A hundred years seems like it ought to be a long time in literary history—Salinger is as distant from a child born in 2019 as he himself was from Herman Melville. Yet somehow he doesn’t feel as far removed from us as the other writers of his generation—figures like Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, or John Updike, who also became famous in the post-World War II years. Our readerly accounts with those famous names are basically settled, but Salinger’s remains open; his achievement feels unsettled, incomplete.

One reason for this, of course, is that he never completed the ordinary life cycle of a writer. His first book, The Catcher in the Rye, appeared in 1951 and was an immediate sensation. It was followed two years later by Nine Stories, a collection of short stories that Salinger had published in magazines, including classics like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esme, With Love and Squalor.”

But there was no second novel to follow Catcher, and as the years passed Salinger’s stories grew rarer, longer, and much odder. He produced only two more books, each of which collected two of these long stories: Franny and Zooey in 1961 and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in 1963. His last published fiction, the story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” appeared in The New Yorker, his longtime literary home, in 1965. All of these stories dealt with various members of the fictional Glass family—seven siblings whose precocity, wit, and spiritual depth made them beloved by some readers, and seriously annoying to others.

Then the great silence began. Already in 1953, Salinger had left New York, the scene of almost all his fiction, and moved to Cornish, New Hampshire, where he did his best to drop off the face of the Earth. By the time he died, in 2010, it had been more than half a century since he had published a story or made a public appearance. What news did emerge about Salinger tended to be unwholesome: Memoirs by his much younger lover, Joyce Maynard, and his daughter Margaret Salinger created the impression of a weird control freak, forever experimenting with fad diets and religions.”

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