It was strange to hear that J. D. Salinger had died. I wasn’t sure how sad I was supposed to be. I’d never met the man, never called him up or chewed the fat. Biographically, I knew hardly anything about him. At the same time, I sensed that few human beings had more profoundly shaped my interior life, that scarcely any had so awakened me to the poignant powers of art and that none had so enchanted me by the particular charms and graces of particular words (which is to say that the only times I’ve found myself reading the dictionary with relish have, invariably, coincided with my intense Salinger kicks).
I’m not sure I would be writing if Salinger hadn’t written. During spring break of my senior year in high school, I was in my cousin’s apartment in Florida, finishing up Salinger’s “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” before going to sleep for the night. It was late, and I was on the couch with a dinky reading light. When I reached the end, I went back and read the first couple of pages again —the prefatory anecdote about horses and seeing the essences behind appearances. The whole story came together, suddenly, in one dazzling moment, and I said aloud to no one, “That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful.”
My Salinger reading wasn’t always a solitary affair. I loved one girl in high school, and our first flirtations grew out of a joint reading of “Catcher in the Rye” (outside of class, which is the only way to do it). Holden Caulfield might have called us corny, but our quasi-literary study hall discussions, in retrospect, had all the innocence and artlessness of a checkers game with Jane Gallagher. I think Salinger would have approved. As much as people like to stereotype the novel as a misanthropic screed or an exercise in cynicism, I find Holden’s relentless love on nearly every page.
(It is, of course, a biased love — one that favors the loser over the hot-shots, the outcast over the in-crowd and the child’s simplicity over adult sophistication. But it is the same bias that has haunted the West since it yielded to the Christ of the Gospels, the same bias that Nietzsche, as anti-Christ, called a “slave morality” and strove to crush, and which nevertheless continues to haunt us and to animate our noblest efforts. Not to mention our greatest art.)
Back in the day, the publication of a new Salinger story was an event and not only among literary elites. Today, though he has not published in decades or even been in the public eye, he continues to cause a stir in the headlines, in classrooms, and (chiefly) in individual persons. Many readers love him, and many love to hate him. He offends critics by risking sentimentality. He offends skeptics by delving into mysticism. He offends moralists with profanity and amoralists with morality.
But mostly he inspires. Salinger’s characters confirm our secret, perhaps unconscious suspicion that something is deeply wrong with the modern world, its faithlessness, its callousness and its phoniness — not, admittedly, an immediately inspiring message. But in confirming and elaborating that innermost suspicion, Salinger helps us to look at the world with honest eyes, to carry on with the refreshing intuition that behind the facade, behind the egos and the careers and the politics, there is, perhaps, something real.
I used to have a hobby of conspiring with friends to venture out to Cornish, N.H., and try to meet — or at least, to glimpse — the legendary recluse. On another occasion, a little less ambitiously, I began a letter to Salinger, only to find out that his address was impossible to obtain. It was a little saddening. Why the total seclusion? Had he given in to the world-weariness that his stories tried, persistently, to resist?
Possibly. My theory is that he preferred, following Rainer Rilke, to cultivate a “lofty solitude” and to practice love (if it is possible) from a distance. In his stories we find characters relating to one another from a distance — from the other end of the telephone, or of a letter, or a memory. And Salinger’s own form of distance was the written word, the world of fiction, by which he addressed himself — at least, for a time — to the world.
I wish I could have spoken back. I wish he would have opened himself up to the world and tried to love people up close. Undoubtedly, though, what I’m really getting at is this: I’m saddened by the death of a man I never met. His heart has shouted from a distance, and we have heard him.
The great recluse is dead: Let the world mourn.
Bryce Taylor is a junior in Silliman College.