J.D. Salinger: When less is more

Salinger’s reclusiveness was a blessing to his fans

When news came that J.D. Salinger had died at the decidedly un-young age of 91, you could almost hear that iconic teenager Holden Caulfield whining, “How could they tell?” But, as it turns out, Salinger, the enigmatic literary recluse, author of The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Holden’s creator, did have family and friends in his life. It was the world at large he loathed, much like his creation did. And Holden Caulfield, a huge favourite with millions of adolescents over the last half century—though just as vehemently despised by a vocal minority—who virtually invented teenage angst. Rebellious or, more precisely, alienated youth have become, and seem likely to remain, pop culture staples. Some critics claim the fiction and movies inspired by The Catcher in the Rye add up to a sub-genre of their own. Curiously, it’s not the novels that come to mind—except for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar—but the films. Everything from The Graduate to anything directed by Wes Anderson seems almost unthinkable without Salinger’s precedent-setting work. Devotees, of course, were driven mad by Salinger’s subsequent silence: his refusal to write (or at least publish) more; the absence of a sequel, of Holden grown up; the legal pursuit of those trying to fill the void; the refusal to permit film adaptations. But however much the reclusiveness suited the author’s own needs, fans should thank him for it. It is precisely that silence that has frozen the whinging, angst-ridden, authentic Holden Caulfield in our cultural DNA. Consider only this: according to Joyce Maynard’s 1999 memoir of her 10-month affair with Salinger, he told her that in the ’70s that Jerry Lewis “tried for years to get his hands on the part of Holden.” And be grateful.