Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, January 31, 2010

J. D. Salinger and my mother

A post on a J. D. Salinger site today reads:

"I think perhaps it would have been easier to appreciate Catcher in the Rye if it weren’t crammed down my throat… and the throat of every other kid in my generation."

My mother was a brilliant and supremely discerning person. In matters of literary and artistic taste she never seemed to make a mistake. I remember how electrified she was when Catcher first appeared (she was in her early forties at the time). She talked about it morning, noon, and night--what a breakthrough it was, how fresh, how funny, how brave, how all-seeing, how wise (she didn't mean that Holden was wise, she meant that the writer's perspective was wise). She didn't recommend it to me at all. She said, repeatedly, that it was not a book for teenagers, that only an older person with some experience of literature and the world could appreciate it. Only a person who was widely familiar with previous writers would understand its sheer literary audacity. Only a person with some knowledge of the world could appreciate its dead-on accuracy and tone.

All these many years later, it seems to me she was, as usual, right. Since Salinger's death a few days ago, the Internet has been flooded with discussions about whether a teenager of today would find it timely. To my mind, this is an irrelevant question that should never have been asked in the first place. It's a book for adults and always was.

Immediately after reading Catcher, my mother wrote JDS a fan letter. Would that she had saved a copy! because believe it or not, he wrote back. After Mother died in 2007, we found the note. It is warmly appreciative. (I have misfiled it, so it is going to take a while to find it.) I'd like to think that her particular evaluation of the book meant something to him.