The death of J. D. Salinger is no more than a curiosity to me. A recluse, the darling of the Eastern literary establishment and hero to the alienated teen and “the smartest” among us. That’s about all that registers.
While I skimmed it during my formative years in the Fifties, “Catcher in the Rye” was irrelevant to me and, I believe, to many other avid readers who grew up in the Midwest with the same feelings of unrest and alienation. If reading Salinger is still a rite of passage among some young readers, I suspect they are swept up by the book’s reputation. There are certainly alternatives to `Catcher.’
I don’t recall to where others of my generation turned, but I turned to two books and a film trying to escape the phony, pretentious and mind-numbing life in smalltown America.
In both Jack London’s “Martin Eden” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” I found as a teenager and young adult something to build a dream on, an alternative to what I then saw as a nowhere future in the world of the living dead. The film, “Rebel Without A Cause,” with James Dean, had the same uplifting effect.
My teenage existence was as the son of a merchant on Main Street. My parents expected their two children to project a family image of perfection, although behind closed doors it was anything but. To this day the right-wing chant of “family values” rankles my entire being. Three of my best friends in grade school became bankers or accountants, and in high school we drifted farther apart each year, our aspirations more and more polarized.
Unlike many of my generation, I was able to separate Dean, the actor, from Jim Stark, the character he played in “Rebel.” I really liked Jim Stark. I empathized with his teenage predicament dealing with a weak father and a nagging, unloving mother. The film was my first inkling that maybe I wasn’t such a bad kid after all, that my own dreams counted, that parents don’t have all the answers and sometimes none of them.
Sal Paradise, the narrator in “On the Road,” opened up a new world for me. Kerouac gave wonderful, electric words to what I always suspected was out there, excitement, travel and adventure, something beside the tedium of the everyday existence that I feared would drown me.
“Martin Eden” introduced me to the rigors of the writing life, and how one man, largely living alone in poverty, could raise himself up by amazing determination, energy, study and hard work. Although this was not the main message of London’s book, it offered inspiration to many who want to follow a dream rather than a paycheck . “Martin” is almost the antithesis of Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast.” Hemingway, another writer like Salinger and Mailer, who wasted talent late in life.
So now Salinger’s gone, officially gone, although he was gone in other ways for a long, long time.
Maybe, if I take a few moments, I’ll reread “Catcher” or some of Salinger’s stories. But I don’t think I’ll miss much if I don’t.