Monday, February 1, 2010

J.D. Salinger: With Love and Squalor

"An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's."
- J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
I went to high school at the kind of tiny, rural, public school that had two English classes available to seniors: "Business English" and "College-bound English." In "College Bound English," we read westerns by Louis L'Amour, mysteries by Agatha Christie, and what my teacher called "page-turners" by Robert Ludlum. We read a cartoon version of Hamlet where mouse incarnations of Hamlet and Ophelia went about in Shakespearean garb and talked in modern American slang.

So my extracurricular reading tended to be a little bit different than you might expect from your typical teenager. Starting in about eighth grade, I began to take breaks from my school work to read classics like The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf. Strange, but true.

I still remember the summer I picked up The Catcher in the Rye. I devoured it. I'd never seen anything like it. The snarky, first-person narration. The stylistic wit. The dialogue! As with so many teenagers, Holden Caufield's open disdain for the inanities of society hit a nerve deep in my 16-year-old soul. I headed back to the library and checked out Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, and Nine Stories. When I'd finished them all, I read The Catcher in the Rye again.

I enjoyed Dave Eggers memorial piece on Salinger because it echoes so many of the thoughts that went through my head last week. What has he left behind? Scraps of dialogue? Lines scribbled willy-nilly on paper napkins? Fully developed novels just waiting to be read (gasp)? Even if the answer is absolutely nothing, I can't complain. I will always feel grateful for the Glass family and that liar, Holden. They opened up new worlds to me...literary and otherwise.

I do hope, in the end, J. D. Salinger came to feel he had achieved some kind of perfection, on his own terms, not anyone else's. He certainly achieved it on mine.