J. D. Salinger Remembered With Gratitude and Suspicion

The only book my mother ever forbade me to read was J. D. Salinger's astonishingly influential best-seller, The Catcher in the Rye. It was published in 1951 when I was somewhat younger than the novel's anti-heroic Holden Caulfield, but I'd heard of it, of course, and was eager to get my sweaty teen-age hands on it.

I should explain that by the time The Catcher in the Rye caught my adolescent fancy, I had long since graduated to adult fiction and was reading many of the racy historical novels that Kathleen Winsor's now all but forgotten Forever Amber had spawned.

(Google "Kathleen" and "Winsor" comes up 15th with 47,000 hits. Google "J. D." and "Salinger" comes up first with 995,000 hits.)

So what, I wanted to know from Mom, made Salinger's modest-sized tome such a verboten object when I was already speeding through supposedly higher toned bodice-rippers? No explanation came, only, "I don't want you reading it -- I don't have to explain why." Although I couldn't figure out her dictum, it later occurred to me that she hadn't read it herself but was accepting advice from friends who said it wasn't for the likes of me. Maybe they feared -- consciously or unconsciously -- that it promoted teenage rebellion.

Obedient as I was, I listened to the stern Mater and turned my attention back to Annemarie Selinko's Desiree. It was in prep-school senior year that I finally got a load of The Catcher in the Rye and only then because my housemaster decided to read it aloud to us during the 10pm hour when we were invited into his quarters for late-night socializing.

Normally, we watched television -- and smoked, were we smokers. (I wasn't.) But David Pynchon, who was 28 at the time and built like a rugby player, was a Salinger advocate and thought we'd benefit from a TV hiatus. So tackle the controversial book he did, and as he progressed from night to night, I became increasingly perplexed at my mother's restriction. I could locate nothing in what I heard that seemed offensive to ears, the behind areas of which were still wet.

It was only when Mr. Pynchon, who later became headmaster at Deerfield, arrived at the word "turd" and blushed for all us snarky seniors to see, that I thought perhaps that might be what my mother was cautious about. Yet she was a doctor's wife, and I was a doctor's son, and we both knew my dad had to use words worse than that to get across points to patients shy of more refined terms.

So let's just say my interest in J. D. Salinger was due to a mystique surrounding him larger than the book's more public notoriety. Perhaps if Mother had used the popular-at-the-time reverse psychology and encouraged me to read Salinger, I wouldn't have become the avid fan I became as a result of Mr. Pynchon's reading.

But she didn't and I did. I read everything I could find--including not only Nine Stories, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Franny and Zooey but also a pirated copy of what had been the early stories he'd published in magazines but didn't want collected. They were, however, rounded up -- by some diligent someone in Europe -- and disseminated sub rosa, practically samizdat. I imagine Salinger was aware of the unauthorized collection and attempted to stop it -- perhaps did -- but I can't say. I can say that I still have my photocopied version and don't expect to part with it.

I can also say that having read Salinger so closely and followed his life -- as much as he allowed it to be followed, which wasn't much -- I have a theory (probably not exclusively mine) about his much discussed later-life seclusion. Salinger worshiped youth, cherished what he saw as the innocence of youth -- calling metaphorically for a catcher in the rye to save errant children. For him, maturing was the sin, the inevitable corruption of that innocence. In other words, he held no brief for advancing years. Look, Seymour Glass commits suicide rather than get old.

The result: Salinger withdrew from society and into willed obscurity as he got older. He wanted no one -- save the young and obviously talented Joyce Maynard, for a short while -- to see him as an aging man. Perhaps the greatest irony of his life is that he lived to be 91, older perhaps than he ever wanted to be and therefore, possibly as he saw it, mocked by God for the very sin of aging.

Salinger did maintain he'd continued to write -- for himself. The question now is, Will his heirs see fit to publish whatever has been hoarded, maybe despite Salinger's injunction not to. The larger question is, will fans want to run the risk of reading whatever is given us from his encroaching and reviled dotage?