January 28, 2010
J. D. Salinger: The End of a Life Veiled in Irony and Mystery
The death of Jerome David Salinger brings to an end one of the great lives in American letters. For me, and for generations after me, “The Catcher in the Rye” is much more than an “evergreen” best-seller; it is truly a rite of passage, as much for my own children as it was for me. I studied the text of “Franny and Zooey” and “Nine Stories” with the devotion of a Talmudic scholar, and I recall how the publication of a new short story by J. D. Salinger in the pages of The New Yorker in 1965 was a rare and much-anticipated event.
J. D. Salinger is all the more remarkable because he so resolutely rejected the celebrity that was his for the asking. He was a famous recluse, and he became all the more famous because of his self-imposed isolation and his decision to simply stop writing. Salinger even went to court to prevent the use of quotations from his work in an unauthorized biography, and he scuttled the plans to issue his last published short story in book form.
His life was always veiled in ironies and mysteries. His father was Jewish but his mother was not – she changed her name from Marie to Miriam, and he did not learn of her Christian origins until the occasion of his bar mitzvah. So it turns out that one of the most admired Jewish-American writers of the 20th century is not Jewish at all according to Halakha, and Salinger himself reportedly embraced the beliefs of Christian Science. Of course, it is exactly such ambiguities and conflicts that make him an archetypal American Jew no matter what he actually believed and practiced.
What remains after his passing at the age of 91 is what we have possessed all along — a small but superb body of work that has never gone out of style or out of print. Indeed, “The Catcher in the Rye” is so thoroughly and uniquely American in its voice and its concerns that it deserves to be called one of the great American novels. Indeed, the case can be made — and has been made — that the social and cultural turmoil that we call the Counterculture may have begun with Holden Caulfield and his contempt for all that is “phony.”
Salinger himself spent his life making war on phoniness, and it is a war that he won.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.