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Analysis: Salinger gave the '50s its perfect novel

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 28, 2010 - Jerome David Salinger died yesterday at age 91. The legendary reclusive novelist was successful beyond the most lurid daydreams of most writers, even though his entire published body of work fit into five volumes.

His one novel was "The Catcher in the Rye." He wrote four novellas, which were published as two books, "Franny and Zooey" and "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction."

Salinger's only book of short stories was titled "Nine Stories." A little-known novella and his last publication, "Hapworth 16, 1924," was printed in The New Yorker in 1965, but never as a book. In fact, most of Salinger's work was first published in The New Yorker, including two early excerpts from "The Catcher in the Rye."

The Novel

The small size of Salinger's body of work was entirely by choice. After the enormous success of his still-controversial 1951 novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," Salinger fought vehemently to maintain his personal privacy for the rest of his life.

The astounding, continuing success of his single novel made Salinger a wealthy man and an almost uniquely independent writer. When the novel was published more than 50 years ago, it went through three printings "before publication." Nobody doubted that the book would be a huge seller. It was even bigger than huge and came to be an iconic portrait of the soon-to-be alienated generation of the troubled 1960s.

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Still in print and selling hundreds of thousands of copies every year, the book has become required reading in and out of schoolrooms, partly because the main character, Holden Caulfield, talked "dirty," which is to say, more or less like a real live teenager, partly because the book was constantly being banned somewhere, and partly because the story was almost seamlessly well-written.

In the story, high school junior Holden Caulfield has just been expelled from yet another exclusive boy's prep school and he faces the Christmas holidays with deep concern. Instead of going home and confessing to his wealthy Manhattan parents, he sneaks into New York and spends the weekend getting in and out of strange trouble, doing some drinking, sleeping in a bus station, and having some pretty disturbing adventures.

But millions of people know the book only as that infamous novel with the boy who uses the f-word. Ironically, Holden only uses the word two or three times to describe how he had to erase it from places where little kids would see it and be bothered. He even explains that people are always putting the f-word in front of little kids, and you just can't keep up with the problem of saving the kids every time.

Most of Salinger's 15 published stories took a similar turn: Some deep-thinking young man (and once or twice a young woman), probably too sensitive for anybody's good, undergoes some psychological crisis and needs help, preferably from someone innocent, like an equally precocious young sibling.

For a generation or so, young American writers desperately wanted to be the next Salinger. Ph.D. dissertations about Salinger, Holden Caulfield and the Glass family of the short stories were written by the hundreds.

Taking a Stand

Burned early in his career by Hollywood, Salinger mightily resisted decades of requests to make a movie version of "The Catcher in the Rye." His short story, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" was transmogrified into a Dana Andrews movie called "My Foolish Heart" and that experience was enough for Salinger. When his grown son was making a quiet career as an actor, Salinger was still being offered large amounts of money for the movie rights -- and his son could play Holden.

Salinger not only held firm, he even threw his weight around. Early on, when his publisher displeased him, he did the unheard-of: He successfully insisted that no artwork or marketing tricks be used on the paperback reprints of his books.

In 1988, literary biographer Ian Hamilton wrote a book-length study of Salinger's life and work, and Salinger went to court and successfully delayed publication of the book but failed to stop it entirely.

After years of giving no interviews at all and living in seclusion on his New Hampshire property where he was reported to write every day in a mysterious concrete bunker, even a snapshot of the man leaving a supermarket would become a news event.

But such eccentricity had its costs. In the late 1990s, a writer named Joyce Maynard wrote a tell-all book about how then-53-year-old Salinger had been her Svengali-like lover when she was a Yale freshman. For the famous author of stories about the misunderstood young, the book was a public humiliation. In 2000, Salinger's grown daughter, Margaret, wrote "Dream Catcher," her own analysis of life with father.

'Cutting Edge' Moved

Eventually, the literary world slowly seemed to give up on the possible treasure trove of unpublished manuscripts that might be collecting in Salinger's secretive world. Misunderstood young geniuses with stories to tell turned to new models to emulate: Steven Spielberg, New Journalists, Steven Jobs. And alienated youth became the norm, nearly passe. In a world of Judd Apatow movies and Gossip Girl books, Salinger stopped being anybody's cutting edge, and people began to leave the poor man alone.

But for a period of 20 or 30 years in the late 20th century, he was viewed by many as the principled literary man who stood his ground against hypocrites who hated his one great book without bothering to be reasonable, and against the materialistic marketers who cared only about selling stories and not about the craft of storytelling or the writers and readers.

Almost certainly, some kind of rush will soon be on now that the man himself is out of the way and the smut-haters and the marketers can see what J.D. Salinger left behind for them to fight over. 

Nick Otten is a freelance writer who has been a regular contributor to the Beacon on books and movies. 

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