The Salinger Mystique

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(Dear readers: some of you may have been wondering why I have not blogged my thoughts about the stunning news that five new J. D. Salinger books will be posthumously published. The truth is, I'm dumbstruck. I never expected to read another book about the wonderful Glass family, and I guess I won't know what to say about this or any other book until I read it and find out if the work rings true to me or not.

At least one other Litkicks contributor, Eamon Loingsigh (who has written previously here about Lautreamont) had a less ambivalent reaction to the news. He's pissed off -- not about the books, but about the whole manipulative mystique of Salinger's seclusion. Here's what Eamon thinks. -- Levi)

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Well, it is the age of irony. How could we not have seen this coming?

Some writers have the gift and intelligence of knowing exactly how they’ll be seen when their work hits the bookstores. Some writers write about the immortal things in life and avoid the trends.

When news broke that J.D. Salinger had planned his books to be published after his death, I immediately had a vision too. Posthumously Published Press! The new rage!

Tag line? “Why publish your books while still alive when you can assure yourself of immortality by having them published after you’ve died.”

You wouldn’t even need a publicist! It’s an even better schtick for a writer than committing suicide.

When once suicide and posthumously published works were a matter of earnest struggle, emotional turbulence, disease or divine intervention metamorphosing into invoked immortality, now it can easily become the norm. Let’s turn it into an industry. This is America!

Okay, that’s enough of the snarky attitude.

In reality, Salinger was known as the penultimate recluse. Even though we would have paid any price for anything that came out with his name on it.

In 1951, he wrote The Catcher in the Rye and for generations afterward, the name Holden Caulfield became a symbol for our youthful striving for truth, and our subsequent rebellion in the perverted adult world. The official bildungsroman in a genre that churns them out all year, every year.

By 1965, he had published his last work. The literary world would never again hear from him. But we hoped he would publish more. We waited. Jumped at rumors of impending releases only to be left with the big question mark (see: tension building) when in 2010, he died.

Salinger got it right. Just like he got a lot right in his books and short stories. He knew how to tell a story, even if it is a meta fiction turned on its ear. When I look at the few Salinger author photos known to exist, I see a perfectionist. Not a hair out of place. A manicured half-smile. A subliminally humble tweed jacket from a conspicuous Upper West Side childhood.

You can see it in his work too. This was a man that poured over the use of every word. Every syllable. I won’t go into his personal life, but there too we can see the evidence of a rigid nit-picker.

Can it not be agreed that Salinger was a recluse because he felt he lost control over the perception of his work after it entered the public domain? There are many reasons why he would choose to have his work published posthumously, control over perception is certainly one.

Another glance into the mind of a perfectionist in a field where articulate criticism gives birth to careers for young hungry writers, is to witness his feeling of necessity to be among the elite.

Hermann Hesse used to describe Wolfgang Von Goethe as an “immortal” among writers -- like Mozart among musicians. Salinger too knew the ultimate value in immortality and was willing to pay the ultimate price.

Most writers know the value of their personal brand in an age of brands. A good publicist can make quite a nice living by creating a literary personality, a “life-narrative” solely designed to pull public heartstrings.

Making a story out of the writer is business, and Salinger now, after his death, is writing his own script for literary heaven.

When we read the new works, which will be detailed soon in a PBS American Masters series, we must keep in mind that this is the contrivance of a manipulative and quite intriguing master of his own fate.

I’m sure that won’t stop us, though.

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Eamon Loingsigh’s book Light of the Diddicoy (Three Rooms Press) about Brooklyn’s White Hand Gang, will be released on St. Patrick’s Day, 2014. His blog is artofneed.

8 Responses to "The Salinger Mystique"

by Gary Gillman on

Interesting. Probably grist for another blog entry and discussion, but, are there evident connections between The Catcher in the Rye and On The Road? Stylistically, I believe they are very different. Yet both are productions of the post-WW II literary ferment in NYC and area. Both were written in 1951. Both feature protagonists of youth and a questioning spirit. The authors of both had great difficulty coming to terms with fame and their public persona.

Or does nothing of substance unite them?

Gary

P.S. Confession: Levi, I have never read "Catcher", I am not sure why. It is one of those gaps. I've read quite a bit about Salinger's life though and if I am not mistaken he was an infantry soldier in WW II who had seen some intense action. I should check Wikipedia but will rely on my memory for this, happy to be corrected if I'm wrong. If I'm right, it is yet another link with numerous post-war writers who served in the military or merchant marine during WW II including Kerouac, J.C. Holmes (hospital medical corpsman), Joseph Heller, Vonnegut, Mailer. There were many others of course, these are just some which come to mind.

by tolmsted on

Eamon -

Love your post, but I do not agree that Salinger's decision to stop publishing was an act of manipulation. I believe the rumors that he took the criticism of his books and stories to heart.

I'm not sure if you read the article by Roger Lathbury about how Salinger agreed to let him publish Hapworth 16, 1924. There's an interesting point he doesn't mention in his New York Magazine Article ( http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/65210/ ) which is that when news came out that the story would be released in book form - critics went searching for the issue of the New Yorker where it was originally published. Reviews were posted before the book was released and I remember reading them and thinking "this is why he doesn't want to publish his writing". I was not at all surprised when Salinger backed out.

For some reason critics are incredibly virulent when discussing Salinger's work. The New York Times book review of The Catcher in the Rye dripped with sarcasm, going to far as to mimic Holden's voice; and both Joan Didion and John Updike had scathing opinions regarding the Glass family. While I'm not of the camp that reviewers need to be "nice" to authors - there is a definite undertone of personal attack in how these reviews are written that's disturbing to read.

While from what I've read, Salinger did very little to recommend himself on a personal level (competing with Hemingway for the "authors who I wish I knew less about because what I do know makes them difficult to like or admire"), I honestly believe he was sincere and genuine in all things pertaining to his writing.

by tolmsted on

Oh, and Levi -

I am delighted to know that there will be more Glass stories... it seems almost too good to be true. Though (and apologies for repeating what I wrote in my own blog post) the odds were always good that we'd outlive Salinger. And I knew that if the rumors were true and he had continued to write than those books would be published.

The only only moment of doubt I had was when Mark Twain's Autobiography was released and we learned that Twain had written in his will that it not be published until 100 years after his death. I remember thinking to myself, "Oh god, I hope Salinger didn't know about this!"

by Michael.Norris on

Salinger was changing his style - the rambling of Seymour an Introduction and Hapworth hopefully gelled into style as far from his early minimalism into a robust style that can truly capture the unruly yet brilliant Glass family in more than the fragments we have so far. This is what I hope. I was enamored of the Glass family in High School and still am.

by Denkof Zwemmen on

"In reality, Salinger was known as the penultimate recluse." Sorry, but who was the ultimate recluse? The Unabomber?

by Neal Deesit on

"This was a man that poured over the use of every word."

So did Cheever, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. Bottoms up!

by Gary Gillman on

This is insightful:

http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/10/02/shields-salerno-detachmen...

It places the focus on the war experiences and departure from authority structures that followed WW II. Thousands of similar personal experiences may have coalesced or prompted in some way rebellious social movements which started fitfully but culminated in the 1960's counterculture. Even Salinger's identification with an Eastern religion seems to parallel Ginsberg's and Kerouac's (plus Gary Snyder's and many others') forays into non-traditional (in America) spiritual pursuits.

Needless to say the war affected, as all wars do, the participants in different ways. Many survivors got on with their lives and were able to put hellish experiences behind them. But artists probably as a group were more affected than others; in Canada where I'm based, Farley Mowat is a good example.

Gary

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