January 3, 2024

J.D. Salinger at 105 — Will We Ever See His Last Work?

By Stuart Mitchner

His tragedy was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there. 

—William Faulkner on Holden Caulfield

“If you really want to hear about it,” the first thing you need to know is that J.D. Salinger was born in New York City on the first of January 1919, 105 years ago. The first and only time his creation Holden Caulfield appeared in the The New Yorker was on December 21, 1946, in “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” a story that got bumped from the 1941 Christmas issue after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The writer who crafted The Catcher in the Rye’s famous “all-that-David-Copperfield-kind-of-crap” opening sentence clearly had another character in mind in the story’s “Holden Morrisey Caulfield,” who wore his hat “with a cutting edge at the ‘V’ of the crown.” The character who came to life in his own voice in 1951 is the one who left “all the goddam foils” of the Pencey Prep fencing team on the subway the same morning he bought a hat “for a buck” in a sports store and wore it with the peak swung “way around to the back” because he “looked good in it that way.”

One of the few times the later Holden’s presence can be felt in “Slight Rebellion” is during a theatre intermission when someone calls the Lunts “absolute angels” and Holden thinks “Angels. For Chrissake. Angels.” You hear him again when he and his date Sally are talking about school and he says, “Boy, do I hate it!” and “hate” gets him going. He hates living in New York, the Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue busses “and getting out at the center doors” and “the Seventy-second Street movie, with those fake clouds on the ceiling.” You get another hint of the reading world’s Holden when he tries to talk Sally into running away from New York with him.

“Old Spencer”

Readers begin getting to know Holden when he visits “old Spencer,” his history teacher at Pencey, and notices “this old beat-up Navajo blanket that he and Mrs. Spencer’d bought off some Indian in Yellowstone Park. You could tell old Spencer’d got a big bang out of buying it. That’s what I mean. You take somebody old as hell, like old Spencer, and they can get a big bang out of buying a blanket.” Holden also notices old Spencer’s “nodding routine. You never saw anybody nod as much in your life as old Spencer did. You never knew if he was nodding a lot because he was thinking and all, or just because he was a nice old guy that didn’t know his ass from his elbow.”

Once the adolescent who laughed when he read that chapter gets to be old Spencer’s age, he makes certain obvious connections, as when he finds that in last week’s column, thanks to a slip of the aging finger, he had Charles Dickens dying on June 9, 1970, instead of June 9, 1870. “If you really want to know the truth,” I can’t explain how that happened, all I know is when another old Spencer’s at the keyboard, Dickens gets an extra 100 years of life.

The New Yorker Mystique

As Holden would say, it “kills me” that Salinger dedicated so deeply, richly, lovingly New York City-centric a book to his mother, who was born in Atlantic, Iowa, which is  only a little over a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of my mother’s  birthplace, Smithville, Missouri, and almost exactly the same distance from Holton, Kansas, where my father was born. At the time they got married, my parents were both firing off stories and being regularly rejected by the New Yorker, which is why I grew up in the glow of the mystique (a screen decorated with New Yorker covers had the place of honor in our kitchen). Because my English-professor father eventually came to New York for a year to work on a medieval manuscript at Columbia, I spent the ninth grade at McBurney School, where Salinger had attended ninth grade in 1931, a coincidence I discovered only after reading The Catcher in the Rye two years later back in Indiana.

I found the book in a magazine shop on the Square in Bloomington and read the first chapter right there in the store. I had to stop reading the next chapter, about old Spencer, because I was laughing so hard, so I bought it and hurried off to share it with some friends. This was long before the novel was assigned in school, and it was exciting to run into a completely unique voice suggesting hitherto unimaginable possibilities. Above all, it made me determined to be a writer.

The Deepening Silence

Among the passages in Catcher that have charmed generations of readers, the one I’m haunted by at the moment begins “I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot,” and comes to a head when Holden says “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” However simple, naive, and adolescent a sentiment that may seem to “mature readers,” it has a certain timeless poignance if you’re troubled by the fact that as of January 2024 the world is still waiting for the rest of the story Salinger was working on in the last 45 years of his life. However naive, the fantasy of the author as “a terrific friend” you could “call up” isn’t easy to sustain in the silence that deepens with every passing year since his death on January 27, 2010.

On Salinger’s 2019 centenary, his son Matthew and widow Colleen announced that “all of what he wrote will at some point be shared.” The process of preparing the material for publication was, however, “a major undertaking.” Five years later with no word, one imagines that in the unlikely event of a poll in this time of ominous polls, a growing number of readers might say they have no interest in “calling up” J.D. Salinger.

Holden’s Last Words

Rereading The Catcher’s last chapters in a new year of wars and shootings and dreaded presidential elections, I get the feeling Salinger sensed the melancholy prospect of the long silence even in the mid-century moment he was finishing the book that would make him famous.

Watching his little sister Phoebe riding the Central Park merry-go-round in the rain, Holden feels “so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.” On this note, which has led some critics to accuse Salinger of loving his characters too much, the penultimate chapter ends. The note is sounded again in the last chapter and the book’s final sentences: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” You have to wonder if the man who stopped telling “anybody anything” in print after 1965 ever wished he could take those two sentences back.

Writing on Salinger’s birthday, New Year’s Day, I hope that whatever else may befall the nation and the world, 2024 will be the year we can stop reading William Faulkner’s observation about Holden Caulfield as an epitaph for his creator.

Faulkner’s comment on Salinger’s novel was made on April 24, 1958, during a talk to an undergraduate writing class at the University of Virginia. Searching for something worth saying while looking ahead to 2024, I checked the transcript, since Faulkner never seemed to be anything less than timely or timeless when he spoke. Explaining why he rated Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye the best work of “the present generation of writing that he’d read,” he described a youth “who tried to join the human race and failed. To me, his tragedy was not that he was, as he perhaps thought, not tough enough or brave enough or deserving enough to be accepted into humanity. His tragedy was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there.”