J. D. Salinger Outlived His Legend

J. D. Salinger has been asking us to let him rest in peace for—what? 40 years? 50 years? Maybe now he'll get his wish. Once you're dead, people tend to leave you alone. Or maybe he got what he wanted already. If there was anyone who outlived his own legend, it was Salinger.

I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was 13—this would have been in the mid-'60s—and all I remember about the experience was my ho-hum reaction when it was over. I don't know what I expected, but I do remember being underwhelmed. I couldn't make out what all the fuss was about. In my teenage brain, it was just a novel about a not-very-interesting kid a little older than I was. Holden Caulfield was certainly no more interesting than I was, and back then (oh, heck, even now), I wanted the people in the books I read to be a lot more interesting than me. But there was almost nothing in that book for me to connect with. I didn't have a sister. I didn't go to prep school. I had no idea what taking the train into New York meant. And Holden himself seemed like sort of a drip.

It wasn't hard to see why no one would leap to hang out with him. If I did, it was out of the polite notion that one should finish what one started—in this case a mopey book about a teenage boy. Of course, the reason anyone my age read Salinger in the '60s was because he was considered slightly racy. Holden swears a lot. He meets a prostitute. He drinks. But he never seems like he has a good time doing any of this. Rereading some of the book recently, I thought Salinger did a fine job of describing the particulars of teenage alienation and frustration, but when I read all that as a teenager, I just remember thinking that this was all stuff I was running from, not anything I wanted to go hunting for in a novel.

I reread Catcher a few years ago when my son was in high school and had to read it in class. It was a better book than I remembered, but my son didn't like it any better than I did at his age, and I remember thinking then that any allure the book might have had as "forbidden goods" was stripped away the day the first English teacher put it on a required-reading list.

From Catcher, I moved on to the short stories and the connected stories and novellas about the Glass family—I felt guilty not liking Salinger, since he was such a big deal. I knew I must be missing something if I didn't like him. So I kept reading. I loved the stories about the brilliant Glass siblings. And then one day I found myself suddenly sick of them. They seemed too cute for words, smart, but utterly without charm. I never looked at those stories again.

That was 30 years ago. Over the next few decades, I groaned every time the tabloids splattered page one with some furtive photo of the reclusive Salinger going to the mailbox. He didn't want to publish anything? He wanted to be left alone? Fine by me. Gradually the media took the hint, too. I haven't seen a Salinger-sighting story make the headlines in a long time.

Maybe this all sounds mean. I don't intend it that way. Salinger was the first writer I read about whom I made up my own mind about how I felt. I think a lot of readers would say the same thing. Some of us hated his work, some loved it, and some, like me, were more or less indifferent. But whatever your opinion, these were books and stories that said, form your own opinion. Don't worry what your mother says, or some teacher or critic. How you feel about a book should be between you and the book.

I don't know why Salinger's work gives off such a message. I don't know if he even knew that was happening. He must have. People reacted so intensely to his books that they deluged him with mail and showed up on his doorstep. I'd be a hermit, too, if that happened to me. But I have him to thank for being the first writer whose work encouraged me to have my own opinions, no matter what anyone else said. That's a lot to be grateful for.