J.D. Salinger the American writer has died at the age of 91. What a legacy he has left behind. His seminal book, The Catcher in the Rye, was a classic that has influenced writers, playwrights, film directors and musicians ever since. I remember reading the opening page and being blown away by it. Published in 1951(I read it twenty years or so later, by the way!) it was perhaps the first ‘teen’ book of its kind. The main character, Holden Caulfield, is bolshy, defensive, angst- ridden, anti-establishment and so, so real. He disarms you from the start.
‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.’
‘All that David Copperfield kind of crap.’ Fantastic! What a fishhook of a sentence. That’s exactly what an opening should do; draw you in, make you want to read on.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (published in 1996 about growing up in Limerick in the 1930s) had the same impact, though it wasn’t a ‘teen’ book as such. ‘People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty, the shiftless, loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and their terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years. Above all – we were wet.’
‘Above all – we were wet.’ Ha! So we’re going to get humour too, the reader thinks. Excellent.
For pure pathos in an autobiography, though, Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood’s (published in Russia around 1914) introduction takes some beating.
‘Father lay by the floor, by the window of a small, darkened room, dressed in white, and looking terribly long. His feet were bare and his toes were strangely splayed out. His gentle fingers, now peacefully resting on his chest, were also distorted, and the black discs of copper coins firmly sealed his once shining eyes. His dark face had darkened and its nastily bared teeth frightened me.”
There’s no short, pithy phrase to repeat here but the description of the coins on his father’s eyes haunted me when we first read this in class in Year Nine.
But I digress. Back to The Catcher in the Rye. What was interesting about this book was the impact it had on Salinger. It became such a cult Salinger couldn’t deal with the fame that came with that. He shunned the limelight and became more and more of a recluse. Although he wrote other titles Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam included, it was Catcher in the Rye people continued to reference. I can see why it must have ticked him off. It’s like Robbie Williams being asked to sing Angels over and over again at concerts. ‘Come on you guys! I’ve done other stuff!’
Rumours are that Salinger had stacks of manuscripts that never saw the light of day. Watch out for the feeding frenzy that now takes place.
J.D. Salinger born January 1st 1919 died in Cornish, New Hampshire, January 27th 2010.