“Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.” —The Catcher in the Rye
Despite, or perhaps due to, his reclusive life, J.D. Salinger is still a fascinating piece of the literary world. His death is tragic because, though he lived a long life, he is one of the eternal “what if?” writers. This is typically ascribed to the young who are just beginning to grow into their talent, who are rising into fame. He, however, showed his capability. He shared his talent. He changed American literature. And then he stopped. He pulled the plug on what may have been a prolific, lengthy, lucrative career. He took himself out of the spotlight. In a society that craves its fifteen minutes of fame, that will go to any length to achieve “celebrity,” he literally ran and hid from it.
The more I learn of his personal life, the more I see that he probably is not someone to look up to and idolize. However, reading The Catcher in the Rye my Junior year of high school completely changed me as a reader and writer. There are a handful of books that have made this kind of impact on me through the years, but the book turned on a light. The distinct, engaging and painful, awkward voice he created for Holden was unlike anything I had ever read before. He spoke to me in a way no narrator or character ever had. As a moody teenager, he said what I thought, articulated so much of the frustration and angst I had swirling around in my sixteen year-old mind. His voice and style is still something that writers are compared to, a “modern-day J.D. Salinger” being one of the biggest compliments an author can have printed on their book jacket. From A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to Choke, the icon Salinger created echoes through literature that followed. Both of the aforementioned books I love, mostly because of their narrators, strongly reminiscent of Holden.
On top of changing the way that I look at literature and, in turn, writing, The Catcher in the Rye strikes me as classic, as so loved, because of what Salinger sees in kids growing up, and grown-ups who still feel like kids. Holden’s aching desire to protect the innocents, clearly because he has grown out of that stage, struck such a chord with me at sixteen, and does now at twenty-four. I watch my younger brothers, both now in their twenties, and I want to protect them from everything. I refuse to think that they struggle with anything more difficult than who to invite to their birthday party or what video game to buy. Forget about love and girls and stress or alcohol or drugs or depression. Even as I write that, it seems so absurd. I doubt that I’ll ever see them as anything but little boys, ones that I was charged to protect the days that they were born.
There is so, so much more that still lives in my mind, quotes and ideas that woke me up almost a decade ago. I have read some of his other writing, and enjoyed it, but nothing has had the impact that Catcher had. For the ways that I grew, the ideas he inspired, and the love that he kindled, I am forever indebted to Mr. Salinger. I’m sure this is the last thing that he would want, one to shrug off fame and adulation, but with his passing, Mr. Salinger is reminding us all what we loved about his art. While he may have wanted to slip quietly off into the next life, it is impossible to ignore what he did in this one. I only hope that he can forgive us for all the flowers on his grave.
“There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” –J.D. Salinger