The stilted guy is gone. Off the cliff and to that place where we will never find him now. JD Salinger, if you hadn’t heard, has gone to his great hermitage in the sky (or wherever).
Some of you read him, perhaps all. I may be the only one of us who wasn’t required to read Catcher in the Rye. I read it, it changed some of what I was, as it did all of you. In me, it made me want to write. What did it do to you?
I only read it that one time. I think I realized how screwed up Holden was, so I think I was afraid to go there again. Those were the days when everyone was paranoid about their sanity. It was the days of lobotomies and really bad insane asylums (though nothing like a century before). There was a saying then, “Genius is the closest thing to being crazy,” or something to that effect, and thinking I was at least a slight genius, I was very concerned for my state of mind. So one round with Holden was enough. I didn’t want to be one of those kids he kept from going over the cliff’s edge.
But I took it to heart, the internalizing. For Esme with Love and Squalor I thought was great. Franny and Zooey. Nine Stories. I read them all that once, just that once. I could stand to be inside them all just that once. Maybe I thought it was catching, that too-much-depth-ness. I know I caught a slight case of it, and it never left me. I still measure a person’s worth by their capacity to go deep, and not like a wide receiver, either (although that I do respect and always have).
I recall taking a spiral notebook into the woods one fall day in Massachusetts, when I was about 19 and in the Army and wanting to be a writer, someday. I knew I had to get myself to it, and with JD/Holden somewhere just below the surface of my mind, I sat on a large round boulder, one as tall as I was, and took one first stab at it. My thoughts ran to the angst, the mentality of Holden, maybe not literally, but he was my model, my template, that character who wasn’t real – but who touched inside, in the scary places, where reality really lies. I wrote up a storm for a while that day, and don’t even recall if I ever came back. But even today I remember the smell of those woods, the dried moss splotches making the glade look like something out of Lord of the Rings or some ancient temple, and the dried leaves crunching underfoot. I showed that day’s accumulation to another Private, something I rarely did, for a long time. He was quite appreciative and said I should be a writer. Here I am, 41 years later and writing up a storm, but still afraid to be judged one way or another, so I take this halfway route of blogging.
It wasn’t only the writing that Holden bestowed upon me. That inward looking thing he did, that broke the barrier all our culture had built up – that he gave me, and made my life a different place for it. We are all better for it, not just directly, but also not so much we’d want to have hiked up to Cornish, New Hampshire and stormed his fortress of solitude. That would have made old JD glad he made the decision to be a recluse, and he would have run off somewhere else to hide, somewhere even more remote. No, we are all better because our parents’ generation was all bottled up inside. Their generation got Catcher too late. Mine got it in time, so we got it before we were too much like our parents, some of us like James Dean, but most of us probably just so we knew if we looked inside we knew we weren’t going to crack into a jillion pieces and never be able to be put back together again. We knew we’d be reasonably okay, so we didn’t have to sweat it too much. And because we mellowed out about going inside our kids are even more able to go there and come back just fine.
Our parents’ generation was just too uptight. Now Holden was uptight, but he was addressing it, facing it, taking it on, though he may not have known it. Perhaps old JD faced it and it made him crack. He was out of that generation, after all. He’d gone to the mountain, and when he came back with the new commandments of being alive and read them to us, I wonder if it took something out of him, or maybe he just didn’t like society the way it was, and the first chance he got he hightailed it, into the hills, forever. The world I saw back then, I wouldn’t want to be part of it, either.
JD was a part of why hippies happened. Jack Kerouac got all the credit, he and Timothy Leary. And they deserve a lot of the credit. “Tune in, turn on and drop out,” was to them a social thing, creating a new “sociality” – I think because they were gregarious sorts who liked to be around people. Holden (and I even more would say old JD) – you could almost feel his flesh crawl when he was around people, just by reading what hr wrote. There is turning inward and then coming out and inviting everybody in, and then everybody having a great old time afterward. That was Jack and Timothy. JD when he turned in, liked it there better, it seems. But he made it okay for all the rest of us to do that, if we wanted to.
Now he is where people won’t be a-botherin’ him no more. That is, unless it is not ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If we go on, if souls are real, if souls are immortal, like some who went inside think, why JD might be finding himself surrounded by people’s souls. If so, I hope they are the kind that don’t make him get all nervous and ready to run into the hills again.
Like me in the woods that day, he taught us all to be able to go below the surface of our minds, even if all he was doing was exorcising some of his own demons. We all have fewer demons because of him, because we all can go and face them, which lets them all dissolve into the nothingness from whence they came.
So, so long, JD, ya done us good. You caught us all, and we thank you.