Salinger devotees mull author's legacy
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 28, 2010 - Joseph Schuster remembers well his first introduction to the author J.D. Salinger, who died Wednesday at the age of 91.
As an eighth-grade student at a Cincinnati Catholic boys' prep school in the late 1960s, Schuster was preparing to read "The Catcher in the Rye." But plans changed not long after his English teacher assigned the book. So many parents objected to Salinger's content - or what they had heard about it - that the school took the book off the reading list.
Salinger's fictional story of Holden Caulfield's New York adventures after being expelled from prep school proved controversial both for its plot and for its use of 1950s teenage slang. School boards across the country still ban the book, but it remains assigned reading in far more high school classrooms - and pleasure reading in plenty of households. Fans of the reclusive author took Thursday to think about his legacy.
"Salinger had a terrific influence on American culture and American literature, and on those of us who grew up studying his work," said Wayne Fields, a professor of English at Washington University. "There was this excitement in the 1950s and early '60s about what literature could be, and he was clearly a part of that."
Many view Salinger as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. And "The Catcher in the Rye," published nearly 60 years ago, is undoubtedly his most influential work.
Scores of paperback versions of "Catcher" are still sold every year. It remains a popular library item as well. The St. Louis Public Library circulates about 20 copies of the book, and the title is checked out roughly 100 times a year, said Sean Parada, the library's adult services provider. Compared to current best sellers, that total isn't high, but in relation to other books of that era, it's "definitely at the top of the list," he said.
"Salinger is one of the best American writers," Parada said. "He is still on school book lists, and he's been able to find an audience apart from schools. Modern writers have been influenced by him, either directly or indirectly."
Fields, who first read "Catcher" in high school, said Salinger broke the mold by creating as his protagonist and narrator a rebellious, angst-ridden teenager. The power of the book, he said, comes from Salinger's ability to tap into what it was like to be in that transitional post-childhood, pre-adulthood phase.
"The fact that Holden was our age and had this pretentious wisdom that was an important teenage phenomenon at that moment was important and exciting," Fields said. "I didn't know who Salinger was back then, but what attracted me was that this wasn't like other things we read in English class."
Added Schuster, now a fiction writer and chair of the communications and journalism department at Webster University: "When [Salinger] wrote it, just to have a young character who is questioning authority was shocking. Here was serious literature that sought to identify with adolescents. I'm not sure there was a lot of that when the book came out."
Terry Quinn, an English teacher at St. Louis University High School, teaches "Catcher" to his sophomore English students. He said the book continues to resonate with students.
"They are at an age when they are often asking a lot of questions about authenticity and their identity and measuring their own sense of selves against the culture around them," Quinn said. "That includes an awareness of the hypocrisy of culture - part of what's going on in the novel.
"[Salinger] is most remembered for being a writer who had a fantastic sense of voice," Quinn added. "The voice we must think of is Holden's, and what you see is that Salinger had a gift for writing in this kind of teenage vernacular. He had a real ear for contemporary expressions."
Otto Schultejans teaches the book to his senior English students at Maplewood Richmond Heights High School. He said he remembers liking the book in high school, but he wasn't sure if it'd go over well with current students, largely because of the difference in language. He said he has heard of other schools taking the book off required reading lists because students no longer connect with Caulfield.
"To my surprise, my students identified with it pretty readily and liked it right away," Schultejans said. "After awhile they stopped noticing the language and it's almost like an adventure story, and they can still identify with Caulfield's search for his identity."
Before he presents the book to his students, Schultejans teaches a lesson on '50s language and shows clips of James Dean. He also shows his students the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and draws comparisons between the '80s film and "Catcher."
Quinn said that one of the reasons "Catcher" remains popular is that it has an aesthetic value that makes it more than simply an entertainment novel. He also has taught to high school students some of Salinger's short stories, which helped the author establish himself as a fiction writer.
Emily Otto, 23, an employee of Left Bank Books, said unlike most Salinger fans, she didn't have an adolescent life-changing experience reading "Catcher." It was "Nine Stories," the author's popular collection of short stories, that won her over.
Otto said she read another of her favorites from Salinger, "Franny and Zooey," after college. Salinger's description of Franny being disenchanted with what Otto describes as the character's "superficial collegiate life" resonated with her at that point in her life.
"I guess the thing about his death that makes these stories that much more intriguing is that [Salinger] was a recluse, so anything that's said or written about them has been almost entirely free of author commentary," Otto said in an e-mail. "And now his comments/opinions are lost entirely, so who's to say what 'Franny and Zooey' was really about, or whether the symbolism in 'A Perfect Day for Bananafish' is of any consequence at all."
Salinger's reclusiveness has been well documented. Schultejans said he respects Salinger for being unapologetic about writing what was on his mind and not necessarily what was popular. "He never thought he had to defend his writing, and had he given more interviewers someone would have surely trotted out the question, 'Why didn't you write more books like Catcher in the Rye?'"
Schuster said the combination of the ongoing controversies over "Catcher" and the enigmatic personality of Salinger kept the public interested in the author.
His reclusiveness has become a part of his legacy, Fields and others agree. And both Quinn and Fields said they are curious to see whether it comes out that Salinger wrote works that he did not want to publish while he was alive.
"I'm taken in by his self-exile and the possibility that he's been writing all this publishable material all these years," Fields said. "I have this fantasy of masterpieces piling up in the Northeast. But I suspect that's unlikely. Even if he had never written anything other than his collection of short stories and 'The Catcher in the Rye,' he can be content to know that he did something important for a generation and apparently for subsequent people at the same point in their lives. He gave voice to something we believed we were feeling."