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Through Suffering, Salinger Always Kept Hope Alive

J.D. Salinger i

J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose The Catcher in the Rye shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, died Wednesday at the age of 91. Amy Sancetta/AP hide caption

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J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose The Catcher in the Rye shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, died Wednesday at the age of 91.

Amy Sancetta/AP

Rhoda Trooboff is the owner of Tenley Circle Press, a children's book publisher. A graduate of Wellesley College, she taught high school for 34 years. Rhoda resides in Washington, D.C.

I can't remember a year in my 34 years of teaching high school English when I didn't teach something by J.D. Salinger. First, of course, it was Catcher in the Rye, and later, much later, when I was teaching creative writing, it was always and most perfectly Nine Stories.

Whatever we read by Salinger, we talked of one central theme throughout his writing: that life is packed with suffering, and also with little unexpected gestures of love and generosity that miraculously heal.

Salinger expressed that theme in extraordinary details — the poppy-petal mask in The Laughing Man, the dinghy in Down at the Dinghy, the pitch of Esme's voice and the gift of her father's watch — that give solace and even cure what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder and Salinger somewhere called "banana fever."

For Esme — with Love and Squalor is in fact my idea of the most perfect American short story ever written. When I taught it in a short story writing class, we noted a million details of gesture and wording that bespoke the weight of the narrator's emotional condition and the miracle of its lifting.

I'll never forget that healing gift of Esme's — and Salinger's words at the end of that story:

"You take a really sleepy man, Esme, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac- with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact."

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