Friday, January 29, 2010

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.

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