By Jack Engelhard
[I wrote and posted this reflection on Salinger back in August on my blog at Amazon. Except for the news that was current at that time, the rest of this piece holds true for me, as, I’m sure, it holds true for so many other readers and writers who loved Salinger, and are today so saddened by word of his passing. A writer like this comes around only once in a lifetime, Thank you — JE]
Salinger can’t hear? That’s hard to take.
Do we really need to know that JD Salinger “is now totally deaf?” That’s a quote being attributed to someone who knows him.
As a novelist who names Salinger as one of his literary heroes, I can say what strangeness it is to blurt out such news. I don’t doubt the truth of this revelation, but I do wonder why it got out from his gatekeepers. They must have known it would make headlines – and not in a good way. Already there are parodies of his aging (he’s 90) and headlines that term him “frail and deaf.” (Shades of Howard Hughes?) I hope we’re not gloating.
This is a man, Salinger, who’s kept himself fiercely reclusive for an entire generation – and there is no counting the number of writers who owe him allegiance. Along with Whitman, Twain and Hemingway, Salinger liberated American literature. I don’t think I could have written “The Girls of Cincinnati” without getting Salinger’s permission.
Salinger did not influence me, but he did inspire me.
(Novelists tend to be influenced by their forefathers at the start but eventually they have to let go and go it alone.)
We know almost nothing about Salinger except for the writing. That’s been the deal. Salinger is all about the sanctity of the novel, which is why (through his lawyers) he went to court to stop publication and distribution of an alleged rip-off of “The Catcher in The Rye.” Salinger’s argument has always been that his writings do the talking. That is all we need to know about him.
He is Holden Caulfield (still) as Flaubert was Madame Bovary.
His revenge has been his silence. For that he’s been admired, and scorned.
As for me, what’s not to like? He’s a war hero. He was in action at Utah Beach on D-Day and in The Battle of the Bulge. Later, serving in counter intelligence, he interrogated Nazi prisoners of war who’d been active in the death camps. He told his daughter, “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live.”
Salinger has no use for the public. He disdains people that he cannot create. He especially hates the uppity New York publishing scene – this, after years of rejection before some of his short stories and “Catcher” saw print. He wrote ONE novel that’s made him more beloved than novelists who’ve written them by the dozen.
Yes, sometimes it takes but one great book to secure a reputation. That is true glory and blessedness.
Like Paul Newman, his father was Jewish, his mother was Catholic. I don’t quite get the message here except that the Almighty does indeed work in mysterious ways.
We ought to delight in the fact that (at 90) we still have him with us – “totally deaf” or whatever.
My take on Salinger is that his withdrawal is a form of revenge – revenge against people who simply DO NOT UNDERSTAND. (This includes the world of conventional publishing.) Even his writing is a form of revenge as all writing is a form of revenge (against personal or universal injustice). True artists reach for the stars. Beethoven had no patience for his contemporaries, hence the scowl. His only purpose was to reach God.
Salinger may not be soaring that high. He’s only trying to reach the characters inside his own writings. Only they understand him.
So why do we pursue him and why do we persist?
Well, we send rockets to scale the moon and the planets and yet the most undiscovered planet is ourselves.
About the author: Novelist Jack Engelhard wrote the international bestselling novel “Indecent Proposal” that was translated into more than 22 languages and turned into a Paramount motion picture starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. His latest novels are “The Bathsheba Deadline” and “The Girls of Cincinnati.” Engelhard can be reached at www.jackengelhard.com