What Salinger Means To Me

J.D. Salinger i i

hide captionGone But Not Forgotten: J.D. Salinger's legacy lives on.

Amy Sancetta/AP
J.D. Salinger

Gone But Not Forgotten: J.D. Salinger's legacy lives on.

Amy Sancetta/AP

The late author J.D. Salinger inspired generations of high school students who read The Catcher in the Rye in English class. A high school English teacher, Allan L'Etoile, and several writers — Shalom Auslander, Rick Moody, and Adam Gopnik — weigh in on what Salinger meant to them.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A lot of those ordinary readers first came across The Catcher in the Rye in English class when they were teenagers. Angst-ridden, insecure, sometimes angry teenagers to whom Holden Caulfield simply made sense.

Allan L'Etoile is a high school English teacher at Gonzaga College High School here in Washington, D.C. Welcome...

Mr. ALLAN L'Etoile (English Teacher, Gonzaga College High School): Thank you.

SIEGEL: ...to the program. Youve taught The Catcher in the Rye for how long?

Mr. L'Etoile: Twenty-three years.

SIEGEL: And how do you first introduce the book to your students?

Mr. L'Etoile: Well, its changed actually over the years, whether the kids are more or less conformist. They tend to be a bit more conformist nowadays is my take at the school where I teach. And I sort of introduce it to them nowadays as pretty much a story of a boy growing up, trying to find his way in the world, as do a lot of boys in literature, that the first thing they have to do is give up a fantasy usually - in this case, being a catcher in the rye.

SIEGEL: I remember - I guess this is as true of the Salinger "Nine Stories" as of "Catcher in the Rye," but from my adolescence, it was the kind of book kids read and wanted to become writers after that, after they'd read it. It was just it was such an experience. Have you ever noticed that having that effect on any of your students?

Mr. L'Etoile: There is a fair amount of that, yes. Yeah, its very inspiring. Kids tend to hold on to it. They dont this is a book they dont sell.

SIEGEL: Thats Allan L'Etoile. He's a high school English teacher. As for aspiring writers, Salinger can present some complications.

Mr. SHALOM AUSLANDER (Writer): You know, we read "Catcher" in high school and I read it again later on. And its one of those books that the voice gets in your head so much, at least, for me, that it wasnt particularly helpful for my own writing because you just start writing like that voice.

SIEGEL: That's Shalom Auslander, a writer whose work has been described as angry and sardonic.

For writer Rick Moody, the voice of Holden Caulfield was more of an inspiration.

Mr. RICK MOODY (Writer): It had a sort of huge walloping impact on me as a reader, that voice, that character, his sort of mild melancholy, his desperation for attachment, his commitment to the truth, they were all revelatory for me as a teenager.

SIEGEL: For the writer Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker magazine, Holdens voice stands out beyond just about anything else in American literature.

Mr. ADAM GOPNIK (Writer, The New Yorker): With (unintelligible) voice, its one of the two great youthful voices in all of American literature. I guess you could throw Nick Carraways voice in there as well from The Great Gatsby as a kind of a - as a post-graduate; Nick has gotten out of college. And its a voice thats made up of a certain kind a set of mannerisms that have become part of American speech and all - Holden always says, he's (unintelligible) as hell. He was charming as hell. She was cute as hell.

Its a funny voice, as I said. Its a humorous voice, a comic voice, full of wonderful observation of everything from the way that the skating skirt twitches on the butt as he says of his less than perfect girlfriend Sally to the way he observes or reads all of his little sisters homework in her notebooks.

SIEGEL: Beyond the language of Salinger, Adam Gopnik says the character, Buddy, channels some of the authors deepest thoughts on writing.

Mr. GOPNIK: He says somewhere that the real end of a writer is not to write a masterpiece, its not to perfectly portray his time, its to write with all his of stars out. To write the one thing that that writer can do that expresses everything that that writer believes.

There are lots of good writers. There are lots of hugely skilled writers. Theres lots of us who write about many subjects with curiosity and diligence. But there are very few writers in century who find or forge the key that enables them to unlock the hearts of their readers and of their fellow people. And Salinger did that. He did it repeatedly. And whether he was silent for 40 years or miserably grumpy for half a century, I dont care. He did that. And he alone did that. He wrote with all his stars out and the world shines brighter for him.

SIEGEL: The Catcher in the Rye leaves you wondering at the end. Is Holden Caulfield still stuck in a rebellious angry place or is there a crack, a slight one in his bitter armor. Heres an excerpt from the ending read by the 16-year-old son of one of our colleagues here at NPR.

Unidentified Man: Thats all Im going to tell about I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school Im supposed to go to next fall after Im out of here, but I dont feel like it. I really dont. That stuff doesnt interest me too much right now. A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here keeps asking me if Im going to apply myself when I get back to school next September. Its such a stupid question, in my opinion. I mean how do you know what youre going to do until you do it? The answer is you dont. I think I am, but how do I know? I swear its a stupid question.

SIEGEL: Holden Caulfield and J.D. Salinger conclude The Catcher in the Rye with this line: Dont ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody. J.D. Salinger didnt tell us much, but he will be missed. As for Salingers final journey, writer Shalom Auslander was a bit concerned.

Mr. AUSLANDER: I hope hes being left alone. I hope God is leaving him alone, but I doubt it. That guy is probably a bit of a nag, probably chasing Salinger around for autographs.

SIEGEL: J.D. Salinger died yesterday at age 91 at the home New Hampshire, where he secluded himself for half a century.

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'Catcher In The Rye' Author J.D. Salinger Dies At 91

J.D. Salinger portrait i i

hide captionJ.D. Salinger, pictured in one of the few existing photographs of the author. The 1951 portrait was featured on the original dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye.

The Lotte Jacobi Collection/University of New Hampshire
J.D. Salinger portrait

J.D. Salinger, pictured in one of the few existing photographs of the author. The 1951 portrait was featured on the original dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye.

The Lotte Jacobi Collection/University of New Hampshire

The famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger has died at his New Hampshire home, his literary representative said in a statement. He was 91 years old.

Jerome David Salinger retreated to a New Hampshire farmhouse in 1953, a few years after he published the high-school classic The Catcher in the Rye. And there he stayed, for the next 50-plus years, scowling at photographers who dared snap his picture.

'I Refuse To Publish'

Salinger's published works include Nine Stories, a short-story collection, and Franny and Zooey, a novella about one of his favorite fictive subjects, the sensitive Glass family. His last published work was a short story that took up almost the whole New Yorker magazine in 1965 — though rumors have Salinger stashing reams of unpublished fiction in a vault.

Salinger rarely explained himself, though the interview requests never ceased. In 1980, reporter Betty Eppes sent her picture along with her request. She was granted one of the only interviews the author ever gave.

"He said, 'I refuse to publish,'" she told NPR in 1997. "'There's a marvelous peace in not publishing,' he said. 'There's a stillness. When you publish, the world thinks you owe something. If you don't publish, they don't know what you're doing. You can keep it for yourself.'"

Catastrophe In The Background

Salinger came from a Jewish-Scots-Irish New York family who imported meat. In the 1930s, he worked briefly as a cruise-ship entertainer. Then came World War II.

"He was a writer formed by the 1940s," says Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia University. "He participated in D-Day and in the Battle of the Bulge. There's a sense to my ear in The Catcher in the Rye and stories [of his] that catastrophe lies in the background of everything he feels and writes."

One of his most popular stories, "For Esme — With Love and Squalor," deals with a soldier on leave who finds solace in a conversation with a 13-year-old English girl. Many of Salinger's shell-shocked heroes click best with children, an allegation that was thrown the author's way as well.

Salinger "celebrates their innocence and beauty in a way that to our sensibility is almost unnerving," says Delbanco. Another favorite, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," is about a troubled honeymooner who plays with a little girl in the ocean before killing himself. The protagonist of "Bananafish" is Seymour Glass, the Glass sibling featured most often in Salinger's stories about that peculiar family. Published stories about the Glasses had already established Salinger as a minor literary star by the time he published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951.

Thoughts On J.D. Salinger

"Salinger transformed the short story in America. He gave it a kind of internal music it hadn't had. And it's possible to make the case that no writer sounded more original."

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, on Talk of the Nation

'Holden's Indignation ... Struck A Nerve'

The Catcher in the Rye, starring the disaffected adolescent Holden Caulfield, was an instant success, though it puzzled some reviewers. Long before it became a staple in American high schools — and ever since — screenwriters, novelists and actors begged for the rights to adapt it. Salinger seemed appalled by the attention and withdrew to New Hampshire shortly after its publication. He steadfastly refused to sell the rights to anything he ever wrote.

But the book's popularity soared out of sight as counterculture became mainstream culture in the 1960s, according to Delbanco.

"Holden's indignation, his sense of the world, really struck a nerve," he explains. "Everybody carries with them the impulse to say no. [It's] the dissident impulse that is powerful in American culture and literature."

Delbanco traces that impulse from America's first immigrants through Emerson and Thoreau to the Beat writers who were Salinger's contemporaries. He says Salinger empathized with young people as outsiders, and romanticized their straightforward, "non-phoney" impulses.

Original Catcher in the Rye cover

The title of the book comes from the protagonist's dream to keep everyone from growing up — to preserve the childhood grace Salinger idolized and resist falling headlong into adulthood:

I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in a big field of rye and all. ... Thousands of kids, and nobody big at all, nobody big but me. And I'm standing on the edge of this crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to come and catch them. If they start to fall ... and don't look where they're going. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.

The Catcher in the Rye inspired censors, assassins and innumerable ordinary readers, who found in Salinger's hopeful yet disillusioned heroes an uncompromising kindred spirit.

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