J.D. Salinger, The Voice Of Adolescent Angst, Dies

J.D. Salinger, a giant of American literature, has died at age 91. His novel The Catcher in the Rye, seen as a defining look at American adolescence, has been tucked into backpacks and lovingly thumbed since its release in 1951. NPR's Neal Conan leads a discussion about his life and work.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And a giant of American literature has died: J.D. Salinger, author of the classic "The Catcher in the Rye," at the age of 91. That novel tucked into backpacks and lovingly thumbed since its release in 1951 gave voice to adolescent despair, and despite its age, never feels dated.

Salinger was famously reclusive for the last 50 years. His life was surrounded in mystery. His last published original work appeared in 1965.

Joining us now by phone from his office in New York is Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review. And its nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. SAM TANENHAUS (Editor, New York Times Book Review): Yeah. Good to be with you again.

CONAN: And this is man we celebrate, even though, well, its been more than 40 years since he last published anything.

Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, you know, one of the great charm and romance of the great J.D. Salinger is that he is preserved in time. I mean, this is the author who really discovered American adolescence. Were also used to it now. "The Catcher in the Rye" was published in 1951.

We think of the '50s as the decade of Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley and James Dean, who sort of glamorized and romanticized the rebellious youth. But Salinger really got there first. And he was the first major literary figure to see that adolescence is a separate part of the human experience.

When one rereads "The Catcher in the Rye," which I did not so long ago, theres a great sadness in the book. Its very funny. Its very witty. The language is brilliant. But theres tremendous sadness and poignance.

And part of the reason for that is that Holden Caulfield has no place to go. If hes going to listen to music, there was no club for him to hang out. And theres no rock and roll for him to listen to. He goes to the Carlyle Hotel and listens to a pianist. Hes there, surrounded by the adults. The only other person he can really talk to is his 10-year-old sister Phoebe. Theres not a world of teenagers. And Salinger saw - with a great a antennae that authors have that see problems not in the kind of sociological way of scholars and academics, but through a kind of radar - that something new was happening in America. And he captured the sound and the voice of it. Thats why the book is a classic.

Remember, too, Salinger was one of Americas very greatest short story writers.

CONAN: And were going to have an example of that in just a moment. But I wanted to ask you: His reputation rests on a fairly small amount of work. At one time, many considered him the most important American writer since the Second World War. He, no shrinking violet, used to consider himself the most important American writer since Melville.

Mr. TANENHAUS: He may have been the most original. I think that case can still be made. If you look at the very earliest short stories of John Updike, another phenom who began publishing in the early 1950s not long - and mid-50s, not long after he left Harvard. He is really a Salinger imitator at that point. Salinger transformed the short story in America. He gave it a kind of internal music it hadnt had. And its possible to make the case that no writer sounded more original.

A New Yorker editor said that Salinger's first short stories brought in more letters than anything else they ever published, more than Nabokov, more than Cheever, more than Updike. There was something fresh there that no other writer could touch. Now, at the same time, that made it hard for him to mature. You know, we think of a great master like Saul Bellow or Norman Mailer, and one of the strengths of the work is that they grow larger over time. Salinger is almost preserved and amber. But the thing he did, he did exquisitely, and that will not lose its sense of freshness.

CONAN: Except now, there is a possibility that he may have been, all these years, writing - as he used to say - for himself. We may find all kinds of new things.

Mr. TANENHAUS: I know. That's the one exciting thing about all this, is who knows what there is? Now, Salinger was a complicated guy, and there's always the question when a writer falls into a kind of public silence that he may have retreated reluctantly into an interior silence. I mean, there may not have been that much more for him to write, but it's going to be fun to find out.

CONAN: We're talking with Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, about J.D. Salinger, who passed away yesterday.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And as you think about that discovery of the American adolescent, in a way, you can draw a line directly from Salinger, to the beats to - well, all of kinds of things that followed after that.

Mr. TANENHAUS: Not only that, you can take it far beyond: A wonderful first novel, Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City" is, in effect, a retelling of "The Catcher in the Rye." So is Padgett Powell's masterpiece, "Edisto."

This is a novel that, like "Huck Finn," has gained much of its stature through its influence on other writers, because what Salinger did was to show a young writer, an ambitious young novelist or short story writer, how to find an original voice simply by being one's self. Now, that sounds easy to do. The craft in Salinger is staggering. The more closely you read him, the more layers of craft you see. But he also gave a kind of invitation to other writers.

That's why in one of the most famous passages in the novel, Holden Caulfield himself says there are certain kind of writers you want to call on the telephone and talk to them. And Salinger did that in a literary way. It's interesting, too, that he should've retreated where nobody could talk to him on the phone. But he had that understanding of the voice, the voice in fiction.

And so, when we look even at very different writers, like Philip Roth, for instance. He's a writer very much about voice. Salinger may have been the first to say one doesn't have to be a kind of classical stylist to be a great writer.

CONAN: Sam, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. TANENHAUS: Oh, my pleasure.

CONAN: Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review and the author most recently of "The Death of Conservatism." And he joined us today by phone from his office in New York.

To give you just a bit of a flavor of the writing of J.D. Salinger, here's an excerpt from his short story, "The Laughing Man." It was published in "Nine Stories," and first appeared in The New Yorker Magazine, March 19th, 1949.

"The Laughing Man" is a sort of imaginary, adventurous character seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy.

(Reading) I happen to regard the Laughing Man as some kind of super-distinguished ancestor of mine, a sort of Robert E. Lee, say, with the ascribed virtues held underwater or blood. And this illusion is only a moderate one compared to the one I had in 1928, when I regarded myself not only as the Laughing Man's direct descendant, but as his only legitimate living one. I was not even my parents' son in 1928, but a devilishly smooth impostor, awaiting their slightest blunder as an excuse to move in - preferably without violence, but not necessarily - to assert my true identity.

As a precaution against breaking my bogus mother's heart, I planned to take her into my underworld employ in some undefined but appropriately regal capacity. But the main thing I had to do in 1928 was watch my step. Play along with the farce. Brush my teeth. Comb my hair. At all costs, stifle my natural, hideous laughter.

J.D. Salinger's "The Laughing Man," first published in 1949. The author died yesterday at his home of natural causes at the age of 91.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: More on the life and work of J.D. Salinger later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, a look at NASA's now officially stationary Mars rover, plus high arts at the planetarium and the secret of the sexless rotifer. That's tomorrow on NPR's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll see you again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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