Friday, January 29, 2010

J.D. Salinger, whose death was announced Thursday, is remembered in the post below, along with historian Howard Zinn, who also died this week. This top cover of The Catcher in the Rye is the famous blank one Salinger insisted on, and of the edition I first read. Salinger didn't want an illustration to interfere with how the reader imagined Holden Caulfied, and he was right. When I first saw the cover on an earlier edition (bottom photo) that my friend Mike brought on a high school debate trip, I was shocked. That wasn't my Holden. Now I have paperbacks with both of these covers. Salon has a slide show of its many other covers--though I haven't been able to get it to work myself, here's the link.
J.D. Salinger, Howard Zinn

Update: Here's a really neat little story about Salinger's life in Cornish, New Hampshire.

J.D. Salinger is dead at the age of 91. I discovered Salinger at the same time of life as most, although when I did--in the early 1960s--it was more subversive (especially for a Catholic school boy) and yet more of the times, since Salinger was still publishing then. He was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1961. I was blown away by The Catcher in the Rye, and Salinger's voice (like Vonnegut's would later) took over any writing I tried. It was just something I had to work through and assimilate. But Salinger changed more than my writing--he changed how his own generation wrote (John Updike, Philip Roth included) and following generations as well.

For me his Nine Stories and his two Glass family books were in their own way even more mind-blowing. I can vividly remember finishing "Teddy" as I was walking fast up Hamilton Avenue in my hometown, too excited to sit or even stand still. This story and some of his other stories were my first introduction to Zen and other non-standard philosophies. I remember in high school getting a book of the Stoic Epictetus out of a college library, through the sister of a friend, because of Salinger.

And in high school and my first years of college I would check every issue of the New Yorker, hoping for a new story by John Updike (a reasonable hope) or--wonder of wonders--J.D. Salinger. And one night in 1965, wonder of wonders, there was one: the final Glass story and the final story of any kind Salinger published in his lifetime. I was in a bus station--I don't remember why--but I do remember reading it while sitting in the waiting room very consciously of there being an attractive young woman (older than me, however) on each side. But even that couldn't keep me from being absorbed in the story. The short stories, Franny and Zooey, were reading revelations.

For years afterwards I would wonder what Salinger was writing, and when we would see it, the literary equivalent of the Fatima letter good Catholics waited for the Pope to read. Salinger was not just a recluse but fierce in defending his silence and any use of his work. Now, depending on what his heirs and literary executors do (and they're already active, having made the announcement of his death), we may be in for a flood. No one knows how many new novels and stories there are, or what they might be like, or if there are none intact. It's hard to believe, after all these years, that they could be as revelatory. But Salinger may surprise us again.

There's also the distinct possibility of new collections of previously uncollected published work, and the less attractive possibility of movies and TV shows based on his work (there must be producers tonight already rabid for the rights to "Catcher") and various versions of Salinger's life. (The basic accuracy of a book about him by one of his children was challenged by his other child.)

The day before Salinger's death was announced, we learned of the death of Howard Zinn, whose A People's History of the United States not only made him a campus hero, it changed how the history of this country is written. I heard Zinn speak twice--the first time in the 60s, to a small group of beleagued draft-age students about the Vietnam War, the second time in the decade past, to a gymnasium filled with students--the largest crowd I've ever seen on the Humboldt State campus. I have a favorite Zinn passage--an eloquent and profound one-- by which I will always remember him. I posted it on another blog here. May these flawed men whose work changed our lives now rest in peace.

Monday, January 25, 2010

These provocative essays by Paul Chaat Smith on American Indians in contemporary culture, reviewed below.
Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong
Paul Chaat Smith
University of Minnesota Press
189 pages

Paul Chaat Smith is an enrolled Comanche, veteran of the American Indian Movement in the 60s and 70s, and now an associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. His main interest is contemporary artists, and many of the essays in this volume were originally linked to particular exhibitions—though the subjects range well beyond art. As for what the title means, “it’s a book title, folks, not to be taken literally,” he writes. “Of course I don’t mean everything. Just Most Things. And the You really means We, as in all of Us.” So this book should be of interest to Native readers as well as non-Natives.

Smith has a fluid style, contemporary and anecdotal as well as incisive, so these pieces are easy to read. He’s big on irony (“Alas, it’s practically the only thing I know”) so there’s edgy humor. This is a collection, so his opinions, observations and bits of autobiography are repeated, though in different ways. That works pretty well: you won’t forget what he really thinks about Dances With Wolves or his AIM experiences. Among the fascinating topics he takes on several times is the late 19th and early 20th century transition, when American Natives lost the last of their land, with some joining the Wild West show and all becoming defined by the movies, including a very early epic about the massacre at Wounded Knee, starring actual participants on both sides. (The soldiers were a little worried that the Indians were going to show up for the battle scene with loaded rifles.)

He can be provocative: “Generally speaking, white people who are interested in Indians are not very bright.” He worries that Indians have bought into a limiting self-image. He’s more interested in conceptual art and the installation art of James Luna, for example, who plays with traditional forms and the contemporary world, to interrogate common images and self-images of Indians today. Although Smith writes with intimate honesty about the National Museum of the American Indian, he wonders when contemporary Indian artists will see their work exhibited alongside other contemporary art.

He’s not advocating assimilation either. He argues that Indian peoples have always absorbed change into their cultures. His basic message for all might be this: “Good intentions aren’t enough; our circumstances require more critical thinking and less passion, guilt and victimization.”

Even with my limited experience, I am still often surprised at the simplistic views many otherwise intelligent non-Natives have of Native peoples. Non-Native readers who've had some authentic acquaintance with Native neighbors are more likely to appreciate this sophisticated treatment. Probably Native readers will find it intriguing. Not everyone is going to agree with Smith’s views, but they should start some interesting arguments.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Not Forgot: Remembrances of writers who died in the past decade by other writers here in the Guardian. Authors we lost in 2009 include (pictured): J.G. Ballard, John Updike, influential anthropologist Edward T. Hall, poet and memorist Jim Carroll, science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer, novelist Frank McCourt and Arne Naess, co-author of the paradigm-shifting Deep Ecology.