All of this fuss over J.D. Salinger is yesterday’s dinner warmed over. Make no mistake: Salinger was a terrific writer, and at one time he was very famous as an artist, not a recluse. But he ravaged his own reputation. He threw a cloak over himself, and ensured that he’ll be unknown to tomorrow’s readers, and little more than a footnote in the next generation’s literary histories.
Salinger’s life may be divided evenly into two parts. For the first 45 years or so, he sought to become a well-known writer, and succeeded handsomely. For the second 45 years, he sought to erase the evidence of the first 45 by building a wall of silence around himself and his work. Sadly, he succeeded very well at that too. Salinger’s most decisive act, of course, was to stop publishing. After publishing one extraordinary novel, The Catcher in the Rye, in 1952, followed by several volumes of interlinked stories about a family named Glass, Salinger quit. At the height of his influence in the mid-1960s, with his creative powers flowing abundantly, he simply withdrew from the world of publishing, readers, and especially critics. The prurient interest in Salinger’s isolation may endure longer than Salinger’s writing. Word has it that a Salinger documentary, prepared in secret, is already in the works.
J.D. Salinger was once the voice of a generation. Millions of readers of a certain age saw in Holden Caulfield, the hero of The Catcher in the Rye, an eloquent expression of their own longings and frustrations. But that generation is now middle-aged. They're the ones writing Salinger’s admiring obituaries now, so they exaggerate his importance based on how they remember him. Salinger was once very important indeed, but he did his best to muffle that importance by refusing any and all entreaties from anthologies, critics, and filmmakers.
Salinger was of course entitled to his personal privacy, and he was likewise entitled to write for himself and not for publication. But it’s more than a pity that he expended so much effort to keep people from reading the work that he so eagerly turned into the world at a time when he was feeling more generous toward it. Salinger refused requests to republish his work in different formats, and when people tried to write about it — and about him — he made it as difficult as possible. His successful court effort to block a biographer from quoting from his unpublished letters not only ruined one book, but also chilled the ambitions of writers who might have followed in its wake.
Salinger’s best-known short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” is about a prodigiously bright young man — someone with seemingly everything to live for — who shoots himself in the head one day for no apparent reason. Upon reflection, we can read “Bananafish” as a kind of allegory of Salinger’s own career. No one will ever know exactly why he shut himself down, but many have wondered — as they continue to wonder about the suicide in the story.
Perhaps Salinger might have kept going if he cared more about the connection that he made with his readers. Bruce Springsteen told an interviewer in 1984 that, “If the price of fame is that you have to be isolated from the people you write for, then that's too fuckin’ high a price to pay." Springsteen is in this respect the very antithesis of Salinger. Witnesses testify that Salinger continued to write in his New Hampshire hermitage, but he evidently had little desire to communicate with any reader but himself.
I imagine that Salinger’s unpublished work will be packaged and sold at some point. There’s too much money to be made for that not to happen. But the anticipation will surely exceed the actual event. In fact, I predict that Salinger’s significance will drop like a stone once that material comes out and gets digested, and that’s because of the anti-public life Salinger himself led.
Rebuffing the literary anthologies may prove to be Salinger’s most consequential decision in that regard, because it has kept his writing from the eyes of succeeding generations of readers. Most young readers encounter classic authors in the pages of such collections, and these encounters lay the foundation for their later reading. Salinger’s work is increasingly invisible to younger people now, so his reputation won't stay aloft once the brief, titillating pleasure of revealing what's in his writer's cupboard is satisfied.
That pleasure will also evaporate because the posthumous work is unlikely to be very good. Writers who refuse to communicate with their readers or with the larger world tend not to produce very good fiction because they’re no longer of the world that they’re writing about. Salinger effectively expatriated himself from the social world, but that world was changing around him through the decades of his isolation. We may expect stories encased in amber.
Salinger betrayed a great talent. Metabolically speaking, he died last week. But his passing really began decades ago.
Leonard Cassuto is professor of English at Fordham University and the general editor of the forthcoming Cambridge History of the American Novel.