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29 January 2010

J D Salinger (1919-2010)

Fellow writers pay tribute to the reclusive genius of American letters.

By Sebastian Gillies

 

The response to the death of J D Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye (a novel that the New Statesman‘s reviewer Jocelyn Brooke described in 1951 as “odd, tragic and at times appallingly funny”), has been copious. Tributes have been paid in particular by fellow writers, who acknowledge his place in America’s literary history.

Annie Proulx declared that “despite his crank personal life, his work is much honoured, something of a cairn on the plains of American literature”. Stephen King said that he was not “a huge Salinger fan”, but described him as “the last of the great post-WWII American writers”.

Henry Allen, writing in the Washington Post, could not compare him to Hemingway “on safari”, or to Fitzgerald “in the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel”, or even to Kerouac “hurling himself back and forth across America”, because “they were famous public figures. Salinger was merely famous, idolised, envied; an acutely private figure who was a recluse for more than 50 years.”

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The author’s style receives high praise. Robert Fulford wrote of Salinger’s first publication, in 1948: “It was immediately obvious that a new writer, with a new voice, had appeared. His characters were sensitive, much given to verbal comedy and a kind of sophisticated cuteness, but they tended to make bizarre choices, perhaps committing suicide for some reason that readers could not easily understand.”

Malcolm Jones, writing in Newsweek, strikes a more ambivalent note, recalling reading The Catcher in the Rye at 13: “All I remember about the experience was my ho-hum reaction when it was over . . . there was almost nothing in that book for me to connect with.” But he concluded nonetheless that “I have him to thank for being the first writer whose work encouraged me to have my own opinions, no matter what anyone else said. That’s a lot to be grateful for.”

John Timpane at Philly.com considers Salinger’s remarkable legacy: “What cannot be disputed is that his novel, novellas and short fiction have influenced half a century of writers, including Philip Roth, John Updike, Sylvia Plath and contemporary writers from Jay McInerney to Dave Eggers . . . Catcher may be a little dated. Yet a freshness remains in Holden’s direct, slang-spangled American voice.”

One of those contemporary writers, Dave Eggers, agrees. “His work meant a lot to me when I was a young person and his writing still sings, doesn’t seem the least bit dated, and few were ever as good at dialogue as he was.”

And John Walsh, in the Independent, joined everyone else in wanting “to find out exactly what this deeply talented, original and intensely self-conscious writer had been doing in his study for the last 55 years”.