Saturday, January 30, 2010

Thoughts on the passing of J.D. Salinger

I used to have opinions about J.D. Salinger's work, but I don't know what they would be anymore.

I read Franny and Zooey first of Salinger's works when I was 12 , on my librarian mommy's recommendation. She'd been a teenager in the early 1960s when Salinger-mania was at its height. I'd read almost nothing but children's literature up until then -- the Allentown Public Library wouldn't let anyone under 12 check out books from the adult section, and I confess I was far more excited about being old enough to check out adult books than about becoming old enough to drive, vote, or drink legally when those birthdays came. Franny and Zooey offered a glimpse of a world I'd never seen before. The Glasses were more brilliant than anyone I knew, certainly. I felt inadequate reading all of those casually tossed off references to Eastern mysticism. Not to mention how I envied their radio quiz show successes! (This was three years before my glory days on local public television quiz bowl.) But I felt a little bit neurotic and a misfit in the same way that Franny Glass was. I didn't like her smarmy date one bit either. I knew she deserved better. I wondered if we could be friends in real life, and if we'd each feel less angst if we knew each other.

Drawn to the Glasses' strange world, I raced through Catcher in the Rye and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters within a year or two. In ninth grade, I was assigned to read Catcher again in English class. I know now that it's impossible to assign a novel to sixteen kids that age and expect most of them to like it. Predictably, most of my classmates didn't. The popular girls leaned back languidly, running their French manicured hands through their perfectly highlighted hair, and sighed, "Like, Holden is so negative about everything." One or two of the most prudishly religious of the lot would throw in something apparently sincere about all of the cursing. I felt proudly edgy being comfortable about it and wondered if (despite my then-steady Rush Limbaugh habit) if that means I was fated to end up somewhere on the left side of the spectrum. Our teacher, perhaps anticipating David Brooks's stuff six years later on Establishment Kids, allowed that it might be generational and that the novel was "dated" in places.

A year later, an acquaintance of mine ("Madame Merle") took the class and read the book. "It's so trite," she sighed dramatically. "Do you know what Marks said that the theme of the class is? Loss of innocence. That's so trite. Once you're educated, you're not innocent anymore."

That was wrong -- or, at least, oddly phrased. It's possible to have a head full of literary and artistic knowledge and still be as innocent as a lamb about any number of practical subjects. In fact, I blush now to think just how innocent I was when that conversation took place.

I found Merle fascinating and simultaneously deeply aggravating. I couldn't decide if I wanted to like her or how the hell one would go about managing a friendship with someone as obviously mercurial as she was. (In this post from my old LJ, I recount the story of a particular teacher whom she worshiped. She was the girl who convinced herself that a 60-year-old European history teacher was in love with her and wanted an affair.) But she oozed sophistication. She wore suits and four-inch designer heels" to class every day and put her hair up in a sleek chignon because it made her feel more like Grace Kelly. I slouched around in clogs, corduroys, and sweaters from J. Crew, attire which was both comfortable and minimally socially acceptable. On days when you could pay to wear jeans for charity, I'd happily fork over the $1 to help the Somalians; she never did. Merle had a quasi-professional acting career outside of school, and in it, she played the female cultural conservative intellectual to perfection. I had a tattered copy of The Road to Serfdom, of which I actually understood about one quarter.

I don't wonder about 90% of the people I knew in those days, although quite a few of them have friended me on Facebook. I wonder about Merle every two weeks or so. Alas, her real name is quite common and doesn't Google well.

Merle thought we should be reading more Shakespeare and Aeschylus. As I delved deeper in more sophisticated literature, I wondered if she wasn't right. Maybe Salinger was just self-indulgent pablum, a misbegotten attempt by the adults to convince us that they were really cool and knew what we were thinking. I found myself agreeing with Merle that it would have been better if they hadn't tried. So I left Salinger alone on my bookshelf for years and immersed myself in other authors instead. I don't think I've read him since.

What do I think now from the height of wisdom of twenty-eight? Of course I care about opportunity costs in assigning literature. Aeschylus and Shakespeare probably are better choices. But Merle's sophistication seems more obviously fake, more of a transparent pose, than it did then. So does her patron's. As I slowly grow less fixated on impressing the New Criterion crowd, I wonder if I'd like Salinger more again. I wonder if I'd just enjoy his sketches of a world very different than the one I grew up in for what those sketches are.

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