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A Pair of Observations on the Passing of J.D. Salinger

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , , , ,

Martin Schneider writes:

I cannot top Pollux's exemplary writeup here, so I won't try.

Instead I wanted to make two points about Salinger, one of which will be made many times in the days to come, and the other of which might well get missed in the hubbub.

1. Like many people, I read Salinger with great enthusiasm when I was in high school and college, and I haven't thought about him much in several years. I believe it became somewhat fashionable in recent years to dismiss Salinger as a what -- "minor author" or the like? -- and I never found that to be an astute or fair assessment. Salinger was the real deal, comfortably in the first rank of postwar American authors, and it would take a lot of very clever and sustained argumentation to swerve me from that view. If American letters today saw a 1 percent increase in Salinger's skill at narrative, dialogue, theme development, wit, and subtlety, the critics would never stop proclaiming this a Golden Age of American Literature. It's pretty much as simple as that.

That's the point I think won't get lost in the shuffle. But what about this?

2. In writing this post about the, er, Golden Age of the Big Nonfiction Book, I spent quite a while studying this wonderful page by Daniel Immerwahr.

One thing that becomes very clear very quickly is that it is rather rare for truly top-notch writers to crack the annual top ten list. They probably make the weekly top ten list with some frequency. But for a whole calendar year? That is uncommon.

Salinger placed two books in the annual top ten list, and one of them (Franny and Zooey) was popular enough to make the list in two completely different years. (The other one was Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters.) Neither of these, of course, is the monumental novel for which Salinger will always be remembered.

Compare the totals for a few other major postwar authors:

Mailer: 1
Roth: 1
Bellow: 2
Updike: 2
Heller: 1
Vonnegut: 3
Irving: 1

We all know that Salinger sold a great many books, and quickly became a cultural phenomenon. I think we still risk underestimating the sheer bookselling power—and, obviously, popularity—that Salinger represented even before he became a long-term icon known for his seclusion. Salinger published four books—how many did Bellow and Updike write?

Posit that every serious American author craves that ineffable combination of critical recognition and a readership numbering in the millions.

Nobody, but nobody, combined those two things like J.D. Salinger.


“Salinger is everyone’s favorite. I seem to be alone in finding him no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.” - Norman Mailer, “Advertisements for Myself”

I’ll second that, Norman.

I am not sure about the novels, but I know that
“For Esme, With Love and Squalor” is, for me, an amazing short story. Maybe it is its hidden structure, but I find the ending incredibly heartwrenching. Its power remains with me, throughout the years.

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