NEW YORK, August 27, 2013 — The theme of despair runs throughout literary and even biblical history. So J.D. Salinger, who excelled in writing about the melancholy of human existence, mainly so in The Catcher in the Rye, was not the first to approach the topic of futility.
Raised as a rich kid in Manhattan, something changed when he returned from serving heroically in World War II. Was it all of it or was it mostly Dachau? We can argue that after that singular experience he came back a Holocaust survivor, and as such we will never know what he knew and we will never know what he saw – except what he told his daughter, that the smell of burnt flesh never leaves your nostrils.
Salinger left us in self-imposed silence some three years ago at age 91, but he still manages to make headlines. A new Weinstein Company production of Salinger will be distributed to 200 theaters Sept 6 in advance of a PBS documentary set for January. The accompanying biography, written by dubious experts David Shields and Shane Salerno (“slapdash,” according to The New York Times) is to emerge in print September 3.
The buzz has it that Salinger wasn’t done. More Salinger books are coming one of these days, but never too soon for Salinger buffs. Apparently, if the reports are accurate, Holden Caulfield and members of the Glass family will be with us again, updated and refreshed. If the reports are inaccurate, this won’t be the first time high hopes were dashed.
As for this Salinger devotee, no biography on Salinger says it better than Kenneth Slawenski, who, it appears, holds to the opinion “not so fast” about a Salinger Second Coming. Slawenski’s biography is still the authoritative word on Salinger and his chapters on Salinger’s wartime exploits can perhaps be duplicated, never surpassed.
But what is it about Salinger that so fascinates us? We never stopped bothering him when he was alive and when dead we will not let him rest in peace.
He wrote those novellas and those short stories – all of it first-rate American literature – and then only one full-length novel, The Catcher in the Rye.
Repeatedly we are told that Catcher is about “adolescent angst.” Really? Is that why, published in 1951, the book still sells around a million copies a year?
There must be something else, something deeper that keeps us coming back and wanting more. I suggest that Salinger hit on the very thing that we would rather not touch by that touches us all – despair. Remember, happiness is only a pursuit. Despair comes without an invitation and we all know the feeling. This is the truth Salinger had the guts to reveal. He may have couched it in teenage lingo, but The Catcher in the Rye can be read and appreciated at any age.
Stylistically, Salinger was mostly on his own, but owes much gratitude to Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and others who articulated American vernacular.
Onto the depth of despair, here Salinger had tradition on which to rely.
In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon was the first to awaken us to human frailty and futility. What profit is there in all this toil when we all come to the same end? Rich or poor, the same end awaits us all, and from wisdom to foolishness, it is all the same at the time of reckoning.
Centuries later Erasmus picked up the theme of futility, arguing in praise of folly, and in favor of foolishness above wisdom. It is the fool that gets it right.
Tolstoy admired the “holy fool.”
Later on we come to F. Scott Fitzgerald, mostly in The Crack-Up and Samuel Beckett, mostly in Waiting for Godot, who extend the thought that everything is useless.
“I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” from Beckett’s Unnamable.
No wonder Salinger turned to Eastern Religion to find some purpose, namely the Vedantic branch of Hinduism.
Did he not know that Judaism is the original Eastern Religion?
Maybe he found the purpose, after all, and that is what is hidden in that great big box that we all want opened. Did he find the secret?
Hemingway never found the secret and by his own hand refused to go beyond 61 years.
In his last years, Salinger’s search was a search for God, or simply godliness, a life of constant prayer. Did he not know that in Psalms King David is the father of prayer?
The sages who codified the 24 Books of Hebrew Scriptures tried to suppress King Solomon’s Ecclesiastes, on the obvious notion that it was too pessimistic. They changed their minds and even declared that it was among the holiest books of all, because, despite harsh truth, it ends on a foundation of faith.
In his quest, did Salinger find that moment of divine clarity? Is this our pursuit and what keeps us waiting and wanting more?
New from Jack Engelhard, the novel, Compulsive:
Jack Engelhard, a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba Deadline, The Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, his memoir Escape From Mount Moriah, and Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist, Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer, brings his words to the Communities page covering all topics, with special focus on the absurdity of human behavior and reaches around the globe.
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