J.D. Salinger and the great escape from our time

Richard Handler on authors who remove themselves from the world.

Disappearing acts have always fascinated the public.

The writer J.D. Salinger, who died Jan. 27 at the age of 91, was only one example of a person famous for disappearing from public view.

Sometimes these disappearances are due to choice (like Salinger's). And sometimes they result from a mysterious death.

The latter are more common. After all, luminaries tend to be reluctant to leave the stage on their own accord after they've worked so hard for public prominence.

The American poet Hart Crane slipped off a ship on July 27, 1932. It is assumed he drowned in the Gulf of Mexico.

Like Salinger, he left a slim body of work behind. Some of these works are beautiful, iconic poems such as The Bridge, and others are (for me at least) impenetrable.

Shoppers walk past a statue of former Beatle John Lennon, in Liverpool, on Dec. 8, 2005, the 25th anniversary of his death at the hands of a deranged gunman, Mark David Chapman, who was carrying a copy of J.D. Salinger's book "The Catcher in the Rye" (Associated Press)

He is one of those poets who, the critic Harold Bloom says, require a taste for difficult, aesthetic pleasure.

Promise lost

When a poet, or any artist, dies in this manner, the question always is: Had he (or she) lived a longer life, what would he have left us with?

Something more mature, perhaps? Some new fount of wisdom or insight?

The American writer Ambrose Bierce, who wrote fabulist short stories, collected in The Devil's Dictionary, disappeared in Mexico in, perhaps, 1914. (What is it about Mexico as a well of vanishing writers?)

Bierce's stories are quirky, even eccentric. When you read them, you think, he was just starting off as a writer. Then he's gone. No development. It seems unfair.

Many artists and writers have, of course, died young. The romantic trio, Byron, Keats and Shelley, for instance. But as far as I know, they did not die mysteriously.

Sometimes, with youngish poets (and mathematicians), you think their best work is probably the early stuff, as it was with the English poet, William Wordsworth.

But when artists stop producing on their own when they are young and disappear from public view — as Salinger did — that can doubly feed into this anxiety of disappearance and lost promise.

The Holden Caulfield fan club

It's totally different for a writer who still keeps pumping them out while preferring to remain hidden, like the reclusive American novelist Thomas Pynchon, author of V and Gravity's Rainbow.

He hasn't been seen or interviewed since the 1960s. There is only a college picture of him that circulates.

But with Salinger, arguably the most notorious of the artistic recluses, we have a double, maybe even triple, whammy confronting us.

He stopped publishing after only four books were released but supposedly kept writing — for himself — for a half century. What is it that he had to say?

As we all know, Salinger wrote that great idyll of childhood, Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist was the very personable, teenage bullshit detector Holden Caulfield, who millions of us read for the first time when we were the same age, 16 or 17.

However, in a captivating radio program called The Holden Caulfield Fan Club, first produced in 1999 by Paul Kennedy and just rebroadcast on CBC Radio's Ideas, we discover people who still read and adored Holden in their 30s and beyond.

The people Kennedy followed around New York, retracing Holden Caulfield's steps in the novel, were perfectly content to leave Salinger and his creation alone.

They did not want their novel, or their author, to change at all. They did not want Salinger or Holden to develop or grow up.

Holden a lawyer or banker! The horror!

Frozen in time

These fans wanted the book and the author to remain frozen, in the innocence of childhood. That's the word they mostly used, childhood. Not adolescence.

They hoped Holden would always catch children from falling off the cliff by the field of rye (the title comes from a daydream of Holden's as he scours New York, confused and miserable but resolutely un-phoney, the slang word he gussied up and bequeathed to the world as his credo).

Much ink has been spilled on Salinger's death. Check out the website Arts and Letters Daily, a slew of writers were itching for this chance. (Salinger was 91, after all, and they had plenty of time to rehearse their pieces.)

Most of these writers are appreciative. Some, such as Adam Kirsch, talk about the wonderful new books that might be found in Salinger's home in Cornish, N.H., which would give him, in death, a second life.

Others wondered whether these books would be any good. Whether his muse had gone into hiding early, too.

The great escape

A few, such as Canada's Barbara Kay, gently castigated the grumpy Salinger for helping to promote too much childish narcissism and foolishness.

"Post-Holden, prolonged immaturity became an ideal, rather than a symptom of failure," she wrote in The National Post.

It seems that Salinger, even as a recluse, was a soldier in the on-going culture wars being fought between conservatives and liberals, a battle that dates back at least to a 1951 critique in The New Republic.

It is a view that gets louder as we meet the Glass family in Salinger's later books, especially Seymour, who is precocious, precious and, worst of all, doomed. He commits suicide on his honeymoon.   It was the criticism of his later books that seemed to drive Salinger from public view and to write for himself.

Maybe that writing will reveal a horde of books with powerfully developed characters. Maybe a new Holden will emerge, grown up and just as chary of the modern world.

Or maybe, as some writers suggest, he'll be just a crankier version of Salinger, a man with odd habits who tried on half-baked beliefs like second-hand sweaters.

It's good sport for writers to speculate about work they have never seen.

But for many readers, Holden will always be preserved in literary aspic, ever un-phoney, and too good for the daily world we live in, a delicious feeling that I bet all of us have entertained at least once in our lives.