As many of you have likely heard, J.D. Salinger died today.
I have mixed feelings about Salinger. When I was in college in the 1960’s, he was the perfect author for a young angst-filled wanna-be writer. Like many of my generation, I identified somewhat with Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye. Even more revealing as to just how angst-filled I was (remember this was the 1960’s and being angst-filled was a required rite of passage) I even identified with the protagonist of Salinger’s short story, “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish.” If you haven’t read the story, suffice it to say the protagonist kills himself at the end. Reading Salinger as I did and listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” over and over ought to have earned me the angst merit badge. Fortunately, my angst was released considerably when I became a Christian somewhere late in those college years.
Fast forward several years to the day in my 30’s when I tried to read Franny and Zooey again. That book—and all the stories about the Glass family—had been my favorite Salinger books. But to a man who was now married with three thriving kids and a job he loved, well….let’s just say Franny and Zooey no longer satisfied a man who had lost his angst along with his Simon and Garfunkel records (except “Bookends” of course).
And now that I’m past sixty (gasp!), although I haven’t read a Salinger book from cover to cover in a long time, he still does influence me in one very special way. And that is through his writing voice. We often read about an author’s “voice” and how important it is; and justly so. And no author I can think of has a more distinctive voice than Salinger. I’m quite sure I could open up The Catcher in the Rye to any page, read a paragraph, and spend the rest of the day thinking in Holden Caulfield’s cynical voice. In fact, when I work on my YA novels (still unpublished of course—and undeservedly so!), I can detect the Salinger influence in my male teenage protagonists.
I think it’s good to have an author who can influence an aspiring writer’s voice in that way. It sure helps with writer’s block. As I’ve suggested many times, if you’re stuck and need a breakthrough on your work-in-progress, just pick a writer you love and type out a few paragraphs written by that author until you’re writing with his or her rhythms. It should be fairly easy then to transition to your own manuscript.
Salinger was a notorious recluse in his later life. As someone has said, he became famous for not wanting to be famous. I’m sure the question on the minds of most literary scholars is did Salinger leave a roomful of unpublished manuscripts? That would be the hope, since he hasn’t submitted anything for publication in decades. I suspect, though, most fans will hope nothing turns up. If it does, it will likely be lesser work and only diminish his reputation.
I’ll close this brief tribute to Salinger and his lasting influence on me by quoting an apt line from The Catcher in the Rye.
“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.”
Amen to that, Mr. Salinger.