I first read The Catcher in the Rye, as mandated in Article 17 of the U.S. Constitution, as a semi-rebellious high-school student—rebellious enough to wear a nose ring and filthy milk-stained pants (I worked part time as a dishwasher in a nursing home) but not rebellious enough to avoid reading a fortysomething-year-old novel that had been an official manual of teen rebellion for two or three generations running. The book begins, famously, with one of the most liberating sentences a bookish teenager could ever hope to encounter: “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, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” This immaculate conception—a child born not by any parents but in a self-generated burst of pure voice—was exactly what I was looking for: I wanted to join Holden Caulfield in the proud American lineage that stretched all the way back to Huck Finn, another narrator who begins by telling us, slangily, not to worry about his beginnings. (“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”)
J. D. Salinger, apparently, didn’t feel like getting into “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” about his own life either. After wild early success, he adopted—and maintained until his death—the deeply paradoxical position of the world’s most celebrated literary recluse. This infamous anti-fame, complete with a 45-year publishing freeze, colored our perception of Salinger’s work more strongly than garden-variety celebrity ever could have. His public reputation always had an element of retribution for his refutation of the public. Self-exile juiced up the rebelliousness of The Catcher in the Rye; it made the “late” work (e.g., 1961’s Franny and Zooey) seem even more crankish than it inherently was. And, inevitably, it inspired the kind of rumormongering and scandalous tell-all memoirs (Scientology! Urine-drinking!) that more visible writers tend to avoid.
Salinger always struck me as an odd candidate for hermitude. Despite his misanthropic characters and flights of antisocial mysticism, the energy of his prose was relentlessly sociable, charming, and connective—he was practically sitting right there with you as you read, reaching over and turning the pages. He captured, in his sentences, the urgency of humans talking to actual humans. It seemed ridiculous—a parody of his work, almost—that in real life he was nowhere to be found. That became, in the end, one of the odd pleasures of reading him: You had to imagine Salinger, the actual man, the same way you imagined his characters, to summon a reality out of a disembodied voice. (The Flameless Torch of World-Famous Literary Seclusion has been passed, now, to the more prolific Thomas Pynchon, who—with his esoteric visions of underground paranoia—seems to hold it a little more naturally.)
It’s hard to know how to mourn a recluse—all we have is the absence of an absence. Maybe, at least, this will be good for the one part of Salinger that never left us: his books. It strikes me as unfair that The Catcher in the Rye has come to be ghettoized, over the years, as a slightly embarrassing young-adult novel—a stick of gum to chew on your way to the big square meal of Hemingway or Fitzgerald—and that Salinger’s name is invoked most often as dismissive shorthand for the kind of self-satisfied uptown preciousness you find in, say, a bad Wes Anderson movie. Maybe this second layer of absence—his new, permanent, involuntary invisibility—will bring people back to the living richness of his work.