The news that J.D. Salinger, since Greta Garbo’s passing the world’s most notable silent-by-choice person, has died comes as a bit of a shock even though he has hardly been seen and barely been heard from in 45 years. Perhaps that is because one doesn’t think of Salinger as Salinger, but rather as Holden Caulfield, the most famous fictional American teenager. Catcher in the Rye was published, think of it, 59 years ago. Reading it now, the novel certainly shows its age — what teenage boy would take a teenage girl to have hot chocolate by the Rockefeller Center Skating Rink? — but the brilliant conversational voice with which Salinger imbued Holden can be heard in every single effort by an adult to render the sensibility of adolescence.
But perhaps what is most interesting about the shock of Salinger’s passing is how his very long life reveals the philosophical weakness at the heart of his work. He was concerned almost exclusively with the travails and wounds of the very young, notably the children of the Glass family. And it was clear that his sympathy lay entirely with them, with their moods and despairs and fears and sense of the world’s impurity and falsity. To that end, Salinger was guilty of the worst kind of romanticism, with his idealization of suicide in particular.
To be sure, the wounds of youth are “sensitive as a fresh burn,” to quote the writer Isaac Rosenfeld, and therefore very powerful. But Salinger’s continuing concern with those wounds may well have been the reason he fell silent as a writer when he himself hit middle age. The life of an adult is actually so much more complex and interesting, and so much the better source of material for a writer as supernaturally gifted as Salinger was (as his own masterful youthful story, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” demonstrates), that his evident refusal to grapple with it and his continued emotional investment in the increasingly distant ways of the not-yet-adult may have been what silenced him.
Perhaps there is gold to be mined in his New Hampshire home in the form of the manuscripts he was said to labor over. Maybe they will reveal the maturity that eluded him, that they will show he was a pure artist who did not need an audience to explore the deeper truths available to those who grow as they age. That would be a wonderful capstone. It’s doubtful, but just think of it — Salinger with a happy ending, at long last.