J.D. Salinger was in the news again today because of one set of his letters, to a friend in Westport, has just been released. It's doubtful that these will create much of a stir. In fact, after Catcher in the Rye, none of his subsequent books or short stories ever really captured the public imagination.
So why was Salinger such a Baby Boomer icon?
For many of us, Salinger was our first taste of real naughtiness. I remember reading Catcher for the first time at age 13, in 1967. I was struck by the way Holden Caulfield embodied teen angst. But mostly I was tickled by his jaundiced but accurate descriptions of the people he met.
Holden was also the first (literary character) to talk to us using teenage language, something we had never experienced before. And maybe even more importantly than that, Holden was the first to let us know that it was okay to not be in the mood for sex, to feel like an outcast, and to feel disaffected and depressed.
When my son read the book, he was lukewarm. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate its wit. It was more that today's teenagers, if they ever get around to reading the book, have already been exposed to so much else in the way of revealing and confessional pop culture. When we Boomers grew up, we didn't have Howard Stern or the internet or 500 cable channels or cell phones by which we could transmit nude pictures of ourselves.
So Salinger doesn't loom large in the collective psyche of people under 30 the way he did for us.
Over the years, Salinger has been a living connection with our past. And his Garboesque public persona effectively froze him in time. The little we'd occasionally hear about him made him sound a bit nutty, but that was okay, geniuses are allowed to be a little off-beat. At a certain level it had been comforting to know that the guy who spoke to us so far back in the past was still alive all this time.
His death was a bittersweet experience for us. It was sad to see the legend go (though hardly a tragedy, he was 91). But reading his obituary also brought back fond memories of our youth.
Salinger's gone, but we'll always have his book.
Evidently I'm not the only one who feels this way: Catcher is currently ranked #12 on Amazon, behind a handful of recent releases. I'm guessing the average age of those who propelled it there is north of 40.