At least 75% of the nuances and the cultural references in the book went right over my head in my first 75 or so readings done between the ages of 12 and 15. I didn't know from Manhattan or prep schools or ice skating rinks or the Natural History Museum, and I certainly didn't get what was going on in that scene where Holden Caulfield visits his former teacher in the hopes of staying on his couch overnight.
But, oh the emotion -- that tortured, my head's-gonna-split-open-and-nobody-understands angst that Holden expresses through J.D. Salinger's plain eloquence and masterful ear for dialogue. That I got from the very first. I can't describe the mixture of joy and revelation I felt in discovering No. 1 -- here was a person grappling with feelings and inner conflicts that I was experiencing but couldn't even name -- and No. 2 -- that it was possible to connect so deeply with a character and a story. My kinship with Holden extended to his creator, of course, and when I heard on Thursday that Salinger had died, it hit me so deep in my bones that for a few hours I couldn't even read any of the obituaries and appreciations that flooded the Internet.
I'd had favorite books before "Catcher" -- "Harriet the Spy," "A Wrinkle in Time," "A Cricket in Times Square," the "Little House on the Prairie" series among them -- but nothing turned me inside out and back again like "Catcher." Nothing. I know this sounds trite but there were times, good grief, there were times when that book got me through some of the darkest days of my life. In the fertile ground of my imagination, Holden was my older brother offering a sympathetic ear in the middle of the night, as growing pains took their toll.
From "Catcher" on I became a Salinger freak, reading everything I could get my hands on and gradually learning more about the author. (It was at least 20 or so readings in before I noticed that the original publication date of "Catcher" was 1951.) One of my prized possessions is an unauthorized collection of Salinger short stories from all over the place (Colliers, Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, etc.) that I found in one of Pasadena's late, great used book stores. It's a fantastic companion to "Nine Stories" (though Salinger himself took legal action to stop the distribution of those books, saying he never intended for the stories to be republished in book form.)
Of course, I fell in love with the Glass clan, quiz kid whizzes Franny and Zooey and doomed genius Seymour. I still remember the jolt I got at the end of my first reading of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." The genius of Salinger's economical, crystal-clear prose can be found in his short stories, where he draws you in and paints 3D portraits of characters in just a handful of pages.
I read "Catcher" again about eight years ago, shortly after my daughter was born, and I marveled at how much I still loved it -- and how much more of it I understood. It's always bugged me to hear lit snobs assess Salinger as anything less than a giant of 20th century letters. He opened my eyes and ears and heart to the power of storytelling in such a visceral way. I can't wait to slip a copy of that famed red paperback into my daughter's hands in a few more years.
There was something wonderfully defiant about his hermetic existence in New Hampshire, his refusal to put his work through the Hollywood mill (after his first bad experience in licensing "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut") and his refusal to even release any new work since 1965. Sure, I would have loved to have read more from him, but wouldn't Holden Caulfield have loved to have gotten to a place where he could say bugger-off to the world and mean it? Yes, he would. Living life on his own terms probably went a long way in allowing Salinger to live to 91.
It would kill me to see "Catcher" turned in to a movie. Nothing could top the movie that's been in my head since 1982 or so. I was so glad last year when a federal judge in New York blocked the publication of a purported "sequel" by a grandstanding creep. (I'm guessing Judge Deborah A. Batts spent some quality time in her youth curled up with "Catcher.")
J.D. Salinger did his part for his country during World War II, and then he came back and produced indelible works. He didn't owe any of us (other than his children) a damn thing more. I owe him a huge-huge-huge thank you.
Go now in peace, Mr. Salinger, and may you find love and squalor.
-- Cynthia Littleton