Thursday, January 28, 2010

Goodbye Franny, Zooey, and Holden

upright=1.Image via Wikipedia

"I'm afraid of people who like Catcher in the Rye.
Yeah, I liked it too, but someone tell me why
People he'd despise say 'I feel like that guy'?
I don't wanna grow up, because I don't wanna die..."
- "William Holden Caulfield" by Too Much Joy

J.D. Salinger passed away today at the age of 91. Best known as the author who gave the world its most emulated anti-hero, the character Holden Caulfield, in the classic Catcher in the Rye, Salinger's writings included a second novel (actually a splicing of a short story and a novella), Franny and Zooey, a collection of short stories (Nine Stories), and Raise High the Roof Beam, which collected two more novellas into one book. Considered one of the greatest short-story authors in American history, his entire output was published between 1941 and 1965. Becoming famously reclusive and shunning publicity and celebrity at all costs, Salinger admitted in a rare interview in the 1980s that he had written at least another fifteen books which existed only in manuscript form in his home, because he wrote only for himself.

Salinger's style, a very stream-of-thought narrative through the eyes of his characters, gave his works a voice that could be heard and understood by generation after generation, even though the vocabulary and phrasing he relied upon were very much of the time in which they were written. Catcher in particular has been poured over by students year after year for decades, with Holden Caufield's naive rebelliousness both propelling and handicapping his attempts to find meaning and purpose in life over a three-day binge in NYC. Written as though we are hearing Caulfield's thoughts, the story connects on a visceral level with an adolescent reader, although Salinger was writing for an adult audience.

At various points in time, Catcher has been both the most taught and the most censored book in American public schools (the frank language and adult themes are upsetting to some). Despite it's placement by Time Magazine among the most important books written in the twentieth century, the book's reputation suffers from the perception that everyone who fancies himself a rebel of some sort names it as a favorite, yet if everyone loves it so, how can they be rebels? (Ironically, the very type of conundrum Holden Caufield would mull over for a chapter or two!)

Franny and Zooey, his other full-length work, is perhaps not as universally known and revered - and sadly so. Our first introduction to members of the Glass family, who would become recurring characters in Salinger works, the story of Franny's emotional and spiritual breakdown as she seeks enlightenment through ceaseless prayer, and her eventual epiphany reached through the help of her brother Zooey, is every bit as captivating and "real" as Holden Caulfield's story. While I love both books, I may actually be among the few who prefer Franny and Zooey.

Indeed, in many ways, reading (and re-reading, and re-reading) Salinger is a large part of what made me want to begin writing. Those who know me know that I am, overall, not huge fan of fiction (I do, however, voraciously read non-fiction). Salinger is an exception to that rule, I think because his writing does ring so true to life. What I would give to be able to read those manuscripts of his that never saw the light of day!

Salinger was 91 years old when he passed away this morning of natural causes at his home in New Hampshire.

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