Salinger is dead, but his spirit lives on

J.D. Salinger is dead, the author who wrote what was once widely regarded as the seminal “coming of age” novel. Novels such as these are usually best appreciated when the reader is on the cusp of adulthood. They are unique in that, when read at the right age, they establish an emotional resonance in the reader and frequently hack their mind apart, reassembling it with a new understanding of the harsh reality of the grown up world. They are also regarded as the books that can make teenagers insufferable know-it-alls, as this new understanding is built upon a precocious teenage immaturity. These books lead the reader to believe (or want to believe) that the main character is their long lost twin. One becomes indelibly connected to this character on his journey through the pages of the book and on the reader’s parallel journey to self awareness.
For the purposes of transparency and authenticity I should note that my own experiences with the “coming of age” books belong with Jack Kerouac, and his haphazard recollections of the rise of Jazz, the search for identity and the birth of free love in his book On The Road. It is not important which book opened your eyes, what matters is that it was a book.
The phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger” is good advice: nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. The reason for this is that the medium and the message often get irrevocably intertwined, often to the detriment of the medium when the message is one of ill tidings. In the context of the coming of age story, it would seem that the medium and the message are both one and the same. There are a number of reasons for this.
It may be because of the history of the book as one of the first methods of mass media (apart from painting, which is as old as humanity). Ever since the invention of the printing press, books have served as visiting companions who arrive laden down with colourful luggage and proceed to tell you stories of distant lands and exotic lifestyles. They have the ability to buy up valuable real estate in your mind more so than any other medium, and unlike visitors with a pulse and a heartbeat, they can be shut up with a flick of the cover when you become tired or hungry.
The strong emotional attachment that books can create within the reader can be illustrated whenever a film adaptation of a loved book is released. In the run up to the release, fans of the book will pretend to reserve judgement while snipes and sneers escape from them like squeaks from an overblown balloon pinched at the neck. On dragging themseves to see the film they are invariably disappointed by what they perceive to be the director’s total disregard for the source material. They are always right, although their outrage may not have the strongest logical foundation. When a character or situation is described in a book you immediately form your own individualised image of that scenario, fed by your unique life experiences. It would be an impossible task for a director to tailor to each fan’s individual mental image of a character or scene.
The length of time it takes to read a book (usually longer than it would take to view a film) allows the reader time to develop a strong emotional attachment with the book. The recent serialisation of some television programmes may provide a contender to the book’s dominance in delivering “the coming of age” story. Mad Men, The Wire and The Sopranos lead the charge in this field: these are all lengthy series with an emphasis on character development and enveloping story arcs. These programmes cater to a wide audience and have all developed cult followings, yet they will never achieve the intimacy that books can provide. The physical deliverance of the story is a large factor in this intimacy. Television provides the option of either group or solo entertainment. unless you create some sort of den with a sheet draped around yourself and the television. Its group entertainment facility is more or less the usual method of viewing, or there is the alternative to embrace the screen so that nobody else can see. If the latter scenario were the case, then my theory is redundant, because that individual must have a very strong emotional connection with their television. I hope they are happy together.
A book with a strong main character can lead one to equate and confuse the author for the character. Books, especially those written early in a writer’s career are often poorly disguised autobiographies. The main character projects a representation of the author or the person the author wants to be, similar to how some actors play magnified versions of themselves. Accordingly, J.D. Salinger was very much like his character Holden Caulfield. At first Salinger craved fame, then he got it, and then he got sick of it. He refused all interviews with media sources, and rarely published any of his writings. He was said to have lived the life of a semi-recluse, although this may simply be a media term for someone who prefers their communication with the media to be a one-way street. His character Holden drops out of prep college which he perceives as phoney and attempts to carve out an independent lifestyle for himself. He is highly critical of adults, shunning their world and trying to live with a genuineness generally reserved for children. This short sketch of the storyline does little justice to the story itself, but it should be familiar even to those who have not read the book as it follows the thread of teenage rebellion. Who has not spent time with this person? With their Doc Martins and plaid-lined leather jackets in the eighties, and their carefully quiffed fringe curtains and eyeliner in the latter years of the last decade. These people are spiritual brothers of Holden Caulfield. Holden Caulfield is J.D. Salinger is Jack Kerouac.
The great cliché about teenagers is that they are misunderstood, and like most clichés it is true. Mainly because adults, i.e. their parents and teachers, rightly or wrongly treat them like children. Teenager’s physical and mental development are rarely in sync, because of this adults usually err on the side of caution and treat them as children rather than giving them the responsibilities and trust that they thrive on. So teenagers mope around feeling like no one understands them except their friends, until they are recommended a book, they start reading it and wow! Here is somebody who is going through exactly what they are going through, isolation, the search for identity and independence – it’s all there between the pages. Hemingway once said “all good books are alike in that they are truer than if they really happened and after you are finished reading one you feel that it all happened to you and after which it all belongs to you.” This truth and belonging that a book can provide, combined with a searing need for truth and genuineness, at a time when no one else appears to care for these attributes, creates a very powerful bond with the reader.
Although Salinger retired to a compound surrounded by a six and a half foot fence, had no time for fans and rejected all media intrusion, he remains a brother in arms to all those teenagers who found solace in his work. Many of them are now responsible adults who read newspapers, read the local news, cast an eye over world news, flick to the sports section, and maybe even spend some time in the culture section. They will read the obituary of Salinger. It will evoke potent memories of the time when their name was Holden Caulfield, when they dropped out of prep college and drifted around New York City for a few days, chatting with prostitutes and getting beat up by pimps, all these memories will come to the fore. They will then search around for a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, and settle down with an old friend.