He was the great poet of post-traumatic stress.
Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I hit adolescence only to discover my autobiography had already been written; plagiarized, in fact, by a man named J.D. Salinger who, in appropriating to himself my inner mass of pain and confusion, had given me the unlikely name of "Holden Caulfield." (You think you had it bad: I come from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, didn't make it through prep school, and believe the world divides into two kinds of people, phonies and, well, me.) Re-reading The Catcher in The Rye recently, I was struck not only by the degree to which I no longer like Holden Caulfield, but also how open the book leaves the very salient question of Holden's sanity. Is he a prophet of authenticity, or merely a confused or perhaps mentally ill boy? Holden is constantly told to shush, to speak more quietly, to please calm down. Salinger signals us, repeatedly, that his anti-hero is loud, inappropriate, excitable, and finally, genuinely strange.
Salinger, the Times headline says, "turned his back on success." We, in turn, have turned our back on those who turn their back on success, in compensation for which we sentimentalized Salinger's reclusion all out of proportion to its importance. So the man didn't like publicity; so the fuck what? We might withdraw some of the energy spent keeping that nimbus afloat, and concentrate instead on the man's actual legacy. In my lifetime, Holden Caulfield has evolved from a troubled misfit into a secular saint and finally into a spoiled brat. The central turning point in Holden's biography as a fictional character, I believe, came on Dec. 8, 1980. After piercing John Lennon's aorta with a Charter Arms .38 revolver, Mark David Chapman pulled out his copy of Catcher in the Rye, and, waiting for the police to arrive, sat down on the curb and began to read.
Chapman, from all appearances, is a garden-variety psychotic, but his psychosis took an interesting form. He couldn't decide whether John Lennon was a prophet or a phony, and the contradiction appeared to have driven him deeper into his madness. He believed, on the one hand, that Lennon possessed the precious knowledge that Holden—unsuccessfully—goes in search of: Where the ducks on the pond in Central Park go for the winter. On the other hand, he believed Lennon had preached to the world a non-materialistic philosophy while living himself like a spoiled celebrity. After being taken into custody, Chapman told officers, "I'm sure the large part of me is Holden Caulfield, who is the main person in the book. The small part of me must be the Devil." He later wrote a handwritten note to the New York Times urging people to read the book. When the judge asked Chapman at his sentencing if he would like to make statement, Chapman rose and read the most famous passage of the book, in which Holden admits, "I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be."
It didn't help matters that John Hinckley Jr., Jodie Foster's stalker and Reagan's would-be assassin, shared a taste for Salinger. Over the course of the '80s, the book began to be referred to as a bible for murderous nutters, for loner-losers who needed to tell themselves isolation and failure were outward signs of a superior consciousness. ("And the first thing every killer reads/ is Catcher in the Rye," sings the alt-rockers Clem Snide.) It lost much of its aura, as a book for sensitive types, and took on the character of a vade mecum for the ultimate "loser"—an epithet that gained a disturbing currency in the '80s.
Lost along the way, much as it had been lost when Holden was taken up as a hero of the counterculture, was the precise nature of Salinger's genius. He was the great poet of post-traumatic stress, of mental dislocation brought upon by warfare. Salinger himself broke down under the strain of Utah Beach, and all of his best, most affecting work gives us a character whose sensitivities have been driven by the war to the point of nervous collapse. That very balance—between the edge of sanity, and a heightened perception of being—is echoed formally in Salinger's best writing, his short stories. In these, Salinger brought together a most distinctly unprophetic form—the classic New Yorker story, in which tight WASP propinquities are displayed neatly upon a small canvas—with at least the possibility of prophecy.
I find (and am ready to stand corrected) very little assertion by Salinger on behalf of his characters' holiness—their status as special creatures vis-à-vis another world—though much is made of their piety, their tendency to, their thirst for, belief. For Salinger, this was an after-effect of the war. His characters look at the world, at the implacable surface of post-war affluence, and cannot believe no body else sees the cracks veining slowly through it. What will pierce the surface of things? Jesus? The Bodhisatva? Psychosis? He never said.
Slate V: Video interpretations of The Catcher in the Rye.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.