J. D. Salinger used to be my favorite author. I first read Catcher in the Rye circa 1973-ish, when I was in 7th or 8th grade; my science teacher was actually loaning it around to people in my class, and I got on the list and read it and loved it. I loved it so much, that by time I got to 10th grade and we were actually reading it in English class, I swiped a copy. I still have it. Ancient, tattered, it bears the stamp on the inside cover, “MARTIN VAN BUREN HIGH SCHOOL ENGLISH DEPARTMENT” (watch me get fined now or something – arrested, even!). It’s well-worn because it has been read a bazillion times.
A few years later, someone loaned me a copy of Nine Stories and I fell in love. With Salinger, too! I liked “For Esme, With Love and Squalor” best, but his favorite was “Teddy”. If I recall correctly, he had to beg me repeatedly to return the book to him. I think eventually I must have, because the copy I have on my bookshelf now is a mass-market paperback from 1991, and my introduction to Nine Stories was circa 1978. I also have a paperback copy of Franny and Zooey on my shelves.
Still more years later, there came unto us the internet, and Salinger was one of the first of those seemingly day-long searches I used to conduct back then with my
CompuSpend oops I meant to say CompuServe account. I found out lots about him that day. He was reclusive. He refused interviews. He’d published short stories prolifically, in such prestigious publications as Colliers, Good Housekeeping, The Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker, to name a few. There are many pages on the internet devoted to lists of Salinger’s “uncollected works”, nearly all of them mentioning that he doesn’t want them “collected”.
And then came that fateful year I picked up a copy of Dreamcatcher, Margaret Salinger’s memoir of growing up in the orbit of her famous father. Ah, FINALLY, some good and detailed information about my favorite author! I took the book with me on vacation to Sanibel Island and devoured it. After finishing it, this is what I had to say about it in my trip journal:
“I have to say that up until finishing this memoir, J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” was my all-time favorite novel. However, now that I know that he was such a pitiful excuse for a husband and father, my enjoyment of his writings has become tarnished. This man and his wife were classic examples of those who should not breed, for they steadfastly failed to comprehend their responsibilities as parents. If even half of what Peggy Salinger has written is true, both parents needed institutionalization followed by a swift kick in the pants to straighten their sorry asses out.”
Yes, the bloom was off the rose. I’d spent happy decades revering the man whose mind invented Holden Caulfield, only to discover that he was a whacko. No wonder he was hiding. He might be sick, but he’s not stupid. If a life-long fan can become turned off by the truth about him, think what would happen with casual readers. Think of all those unpurchased paperbacks. Think of all those 10th graders whose parents are having a hard enough time with the fact that they’re reading a book spattered with the F word and various other expletives. You wanna see books burning? Just wait until they find out what a horrible father he was!
And so, for the last 6 years, I’ve sulked, refusing to do the annual pilgrimage into the mind of the teenager that is Holden Caulfield. A few of those 6 years, my books were in storage, anyhow, so I didn’t really need to sulk those years, but probably did anyway. I did lay hands upon my Salinger paperbacks, though – twice. I’ve moved twice in that time period, and so I actually touched them without reading them, once to pack them up into storage, and then again when I got to the new house and unpacked them.
I had to do a book purge when I got here. I don’t know what possessed me to own so many books, never mind pack them and pay to move them from Long Island to Florida. I knew it had to be done, but it still felt like an amputation. I posted the titles online to various forums and lists, and mailed out the ones that people wanted. The rest went to Goodwill in Lehigh Acres, where the manager of the place was grateful to receive them.
Interestingly, I gave away Margaret’s hardcover, but kept J. D.’s paperbacks. Oh, I was still mad at him, but somewhere inside, I was still deeply attached to ol’ J.D. and his stories. There are other items I’ve dragged with me from pillar to post over the years, items that I keep in a certain Box, items that I have not wanted to read but not wanted to part with, either. But that’s another post for another day.
My recent run-in with personal history, compliments of Facebook led to a raid on that certain Box… (when I can face The Box again, I’ll let y’all know). The raid on The Box led to remembering Nine Stories in ways in which I had not indulged in many, many years. And so I left The Box and proceeded to comb the bookshelves in my home office, whereupon I found the book, turned immediately to the last chapter where I knew I’d find “Teddy”, and read it through.
J.D. is a talented, sensitive, brilliant writer. These attributes coexist with ineptitude as a husband and a father. Margaret Salinger commented something to the effect that she’d expected the man who thought up the role of the catcher, the guy who keeps kids from running off a cliff, to be that for her. Given that she is his child, I’d say she had a right to expect that, and has a right to be disappointed about it. I hope writing the book has helped her to cope with that disappointment, at least somewhat. I know that such profound disappointment in a parent is not something you ever really get over, but you can’t let it cripple you for the rest of your life, either.
So I read “Teddy” and I enjoyed it. And remembered. And shed a few tears. I’m not sure I’m ready to forgive ol’ J.D. yet, just as I’m not quite sure that I’m ready to forgive myself. All this time, I thought I’d abandoned Salinger in solidarity with his daughter, because he was such a poor parent. But now… now, I think I realize that it may have less to do with his sins than it has to do with my own. Like a lot of things associated with that time in my life, J.D. now makes me feel like that 17-18 year old fuck-up I used to be, flailing around on the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy, so desperate to survive, so heedless of the wounds I was inflicting upon others. And, let’s face it – upon myself.
Clearly, I am in need of redemption. Got any ideas, anyone? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between the covers of Nine Stories. Perhaps I should read the whole thing. Just to find out.