For introverts everywhere, J.D. Salinger had been staying home. He did his thing, and he just wanted us to leave him alone. He said no thank you, and sometimes, hell, no, in a world where people foam at the mouth for media attention. I liked knowing he was at home and didn’t need nobody.
I imagine it would be easier to hermit if you knew that you had conquered the New Yorker and American adolescents and book-burners. I’m not quite ready to hide my light under a bushel. My light hasn’t exactly blinded everyone yet.
One obituary I read mentioned that there might be a whole shelf full of Glass family fiction, unpublished. Let’s not say unseen because Salinger saw it. What does it mean to publish? Why do you share your work? Publishing clearly lost meaning for him.
I’m not sure how much an artist “owes” the world. But I know you owe them something. You couldn’t make art without the sea of culture that you swim in. Many artists modeled their skills after great teachers, and your supplies, whether they are paints or stories or apples, were not yours. You took them from the world. You transformed them, true. But the world is your patron, and you owe everyone a cut.
Salinger did give us a cut. Last spring, I sat on a stool in our school’s chemistry lab and reread Catcher. My student teacher had taken full-steam responsibility for my classes, and some of my kids would read Catcher after she was done. I remembered reading both Catcher and Nine Stories. Nine Stories I had loved. I wondered if, as a thirty-year-old, I would find Catcher gripey, snotty, morose… you know, adolescent. I didn’t. I was touched by Holden’s muddled joy and fear. I recognized what was childish in him, and where the budding grimaces of adulthood would eventually wear lines into his forehead. I loved him like he was part of me. I recognized the artistry of the novel’s structure and storytelling, too.
Whether he tithed us his best, or kept the good stuff in his vault, I’m feeling satisfied with what we had. And I was pleasantly surprised by how much my students, even the ones who have never seen New York, a boarding school, or a snotty rich white kid, fell in with Holden’s adventure, too.
It didn’t hurt that I warned them, “You or your family might find this book offensive. You can choose something else.” They all nodded and quickly turned to page one.