The last rebel

J.D. Salinger did the unthinkable – he refused to play the fame game.

J.D. Salinger did the unthinkable – he refused to play the fame game

J.D. Salinger and his two best-known books: the classic novel The Catcher in the Rye and his short story collection Nine Stories. ((Amy Sancetta/Associated Press))

The word "rebel" is so overused and misused in our culture that it seems pat and tired to apply it to J.D. Salinger. Yet, I can think of few prominent contemporary arts figures who actually deserve that label as much as he did.

Salinger, who died Jan. 27 at the age of 91, rebelled against the one sacred thing that all the other so-called rebels were loath to dismiss: fame. In his 30s, just as he was becoming a celebrated author, an increasingly reclusive Salinger disconnected from the media machine completely. Apart from one or two brief exceptions, he would never speak to the press again. Not only that, from 1963 onward, the man who had written The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Nine Stories (1953) – two of the most influential works of the mid-20th century – never published another book.

For a time, it was assumed Salinger had come up against some kind of gigantic writer's block. Certainly, his last published story, the prolix and improbable Hapworth 16, 1924 – which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965 – suggested he'd hit a creative crisis. However, those closest to him, who eventually broke their silence late in his life – including his ex-lover Joyce Maynard – have indicated that he kept writing. There was talk of a vault in his rural New Hampshire hideaway where he squirreled away his manuscripts. Whatever he was working on, clearly he no longer wished to share it with the world. It proved to be the most complete repudiation of literary glory since Arthur Rimbaud gave up poetry for a merchant's life in East Africa.

Like Rimbaud, Salinger held the book world in contempt. And this was well before authors were expected to go on extensive reading tours to flog their wares, create their own websites and strive for the blessing of Oprah or a spot on Larry King. In the late 1960s, just when popular authors were engaging with the socio-political upheaval of the time – arguing on talk shows, acting as commentators – Salinger, one of the first spokesmen for the baby boom generation, clammed up. Where the other great postwar American writers – Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal – threw themselves into the issues of the time, responding with journalism and topical novels, Salinger dropped out.

Of course, so did many young boomers, but the alternative hippie lifestyle proved a passing trend, and most of them soon returned to the middle-class values they'd spurned. Salinger – who despised the hippies and the Beats, even as he pursued the same brand of oriental enlightenment that inspired them – stayed unplugged from the larger world. He holed up in his house in Cornish, N.H., with a concrete bunker that served as his studio, and saw to it that future editions of his previously published books were shorn of all biographical information, blurbs and author photos. News services have been using the same black-and-white photo of Salinger since the 1950s.

Salinger wasn't a hermit, however. He drove into town for groceries and to run errands; he ventured to New York to see his son, Matthew, who had pursued an acting career. He managed to keep so completely out of the spotlight, though, that his name seldom surfaced in the news. When it did, it was usually via a lawsuit in defence of his privacy and his art. In the 1980s, he successfully blocked British critic Ian Hamilton from quoting his letters in a biography, and just last year, he sued a Swedish publisher over an unauthorized sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. After seeing one of his short stories, the poignant Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, turned into a mawkish movie called My Foolish Heart (1950), Salinger also refused to allow any of his books to be filmed.

Who knows what he thought of his in-your-face contemporaries, like the late Mailer, let alone current celebrity authors like J.K. Rowling, who eagerly cultivate their fan base. Salinger refused to connect with fans. Still, readers found – and continue to find – their way to his work without media hype. The unflagging success of Catcher, which still sells a quarter of a million copies a year in the U.S., allowed Salinger to remain aloof and write only for himself.

Year after year, some new young reader discovers Holden Caulfield, the 16-year-old slacker antihero of Catcher, and hears an authentic voice. The slang has become antique ("flit" for "gay," for example), and the spicing of "goddams" and "Chrissakes" in Holden's narrative is no longer shocking, but his cynical view of the "phoney" adult world still resonates with kids. (It doesn’t hurt that the book has been a perennial target of censorship – as recently as 2005, it was on the American Library Association’s list of the 10 books that parents and teachers most frequently attempted to ban.)

Then, there is Salinger's great unfinished (or at least, unpublished) family chronicle, the saga of the Glass clan. It begins with several of the yarns in Nine Stories and is amplified in the four long tales that comprise Salinger's last two published books, Franny and Zooey (1961) and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction (1963). Here, the Irish-Jewish writer indulged in an increasing preoccupation with eastern religious philosophies that spoke to disillusioned boomers in the 1960s and still speaks to young people today. 

We don't know if Salinger ever found solace in his spiritual search. As tell-all memoirs by Maynard and his daughter Margaret  revealed, he was a complicated, troubled man — thin-skinned and difficult, perhaps an arrested adolescent. Whatever those flaws, however, there is something heroic in his refusal to play the fame game. When we look at the increasingly pathetic lengths that people will go to for attention and a media that grants celebrity on the slimmest of pretexts, J.D. Salinger seems like an extraordinary creature from another time — a time when what mattered was the art, not the artist.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC News.