Salinger’s Perfect Day

Salinger on Time. 1961

We have a new review on tap. Rebecca Parton rereads The Catcher in the Rye and gives us her vivid impressions below.

J.D. Salinger was born in 1919 and still lives among us. He may or may not be writing new fiction, though we have had various reports over the years that he has created and cataloged numerous works. Unfortunately, we will probably have to wait for his death to see those works. His last published piece was in 1965, in the New Yorker, entitled, Hapworth 16 1924.

He led a very interesting life in many ways. Prior to the fame and fortune of his later years, he dated Oona O’Neill, Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, before Charlie Chaplin came into the picture for her. Ironically, he would repeat some of the May/December patterns of Chaplin in his own mature years. He fought in many key battles in World War II, met Hemingway while overseas, and did counter-intelligence work for the Allies. In the late 1940s, Salinger began a spiritual journey that would take him from Zen Buddhism to Vedanta, to esoteric Yoga practices, Dianetics, and Christian Science. The details of this journey are in some dispute, however, as his son, Matt, disagrees with some of the observations his sister Margaret has made about Salinger’s spiritual discoveries. We can infer some of the route from his stories, at least as far as 1965.

Because Salinger is a recluse, and tenacious about protecting his privacy, much guesswork is involved in establishing a complete and reliable biography. Legal battles have been waged in recent decades to make that even harder. Perhaps it’s better, then, to read and enjoy his novels, short stories and novellas, without worrying about the writer behind them. Admittedly, that can be difficult. Sometimes the harder a writer works to protect his or her privacy, the more we readers want to know what’s really going on behind the scenes. We often find the recluse far more interesting than writers who seem to actually seek publicity and public confession.

Getting back to the fiction itself, I am drawn to Franny and Zooey the most. Any book that deals intelligently with young, creative, brilliant people intriques me, and this one adds the further draw of existential crises. Salinger rallies the Glass family around the youngest, Franny, to help her work her way out of depression and collapse. The power of familial love and Eastern wisdom unite to take us on the journey with Franny. As is generally the case, those who help guide younger family members, themselves learn and grow in the process.

Salinger brings out the kid in all of us. He centered his stories on kids and young adults, related to them perhaps better than he related to older adults, and reminds all of us about the inner lives we once had that others so often missed or dismissed. Many writers and artists have talked about genius being the recreation of childhood. Made fresh. Brought into the present. Salinger does that literally. I think the perfect day for him is to write about a young adult recapturing his childhood, while relating that to a child. Perhaps on the beach. In the sun. With no more noise in the wind than two voices and gull-calls. Innocence regained. Innocence transferred. Innocence protected to the degree possible. Symbiosis.

Of course, Salinger writes about forces working against all of that. He is never naive in his stories. It may actually be quite difficult to live in New York, or any major city, and remain naive about outside forces working against the innocence of childhood. Now that he lives in New Hampshire, away from the Big Apple, he has a chance to reflect on those forces without being overwhelmed by them. But the Glass family felt those forces as did Holden Caulfied. The tension between innocence and worldliness, honesty and phoniness, guilelessness and cynicism . . . exist throughout his published work. Spirtuality is often a buffer and antitode to that tension, though it is never presented as a catchall or permanent escape hatch. Nor is it presented as easy. Process is everything. The journey is everything. And the journey is never without struggle.

Salinger distills this tension down to an essence few writers can manage. He writes readable fiction. Accessible fiction. We can match Salinger’s perfect day with perfect days of our own, by adding his books and transmitting them to others. Relaying our recaptured childhood on the beach, in the sun, without noise.

Salinger’s Perfect Day
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