Thursday, February 04, 2010

What Was So Great About J. D. Salinger?

Let's face it, J. D. Salinger, who has just died at age 91, was a virtual one-hit wonder, known primarily for his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, a well-thumbed copy of which was found famously in the pocket of convicted John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman when the loner shot the rock star on the night of December 8, 1980. Chapman supposedly killed Lennon because he recognized in the former Beatle the same phoniness that Catcher in the Rye hero Holden Caulfield saw in the world around him.

What's the world's fascination with Salinger? Or is it a kind of Baby Boomer longing for a lost innocence, a desire to have what could not be, more literary jewels from the reclusive Salinger? An aching throb like a missing phantom limb? But Salinger was America's literary ghost long before his death, and in the nearly four decades since he last wrote for The New Yorker in mid-Sixties. He was literature's Greta Garbo. AWOL from the scene, understandably perhaps conjuring dreams among his admirers of a luminescent and glorious return like the legends that King Arthur or Elvis might one day return.

Now of course those same Salinger junkies have thoughts that there could be more great novels written by Salinger just waiting to be discovered. But couldn't it have been more that the writer realised that he had written his one great book and had nothing more left to contribute??? According to Lillian Ross, the writer once said he'd never "had the annoyance" of meeting Truman Capote.

That was a case, I suppose, of the admired superior moral values of Salinger, able to look down on the more commercially oriented Capote, a noted publicity hound. So thus did one literary legend dismiss another. Yet perhaps the real truth is that J. D. Salinger and Truman Capote were very much alike: two peas in a pod. Both famous mostly for just one great book each, The Catcher in the Rye and In Cold Blood, respectively. Their promises equally unfulfilled.

Hit the title above for a number of tributes to Salinger in The New Yorker of February 1, 2010. Enjoy!

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