Somehow I missed soaking in Salinger as a young adult. In this, if my current students are any indication, I am a rarity. They know Catcher in the Rye the way I knew That Hideous Strength. If I worried about being Mark Studdock, then they worried about being another misunderstood Holden Caulfield.
When two students I greatly respect told me that I must read Franny and Zooey, I submitted to their wisdom. I not only wanted to read Salinger, I wanted to know why so many generations of my gifted students loved him. After twenty-six years of teaching Salinger fanatics, I wanted more than what I had.
Setting out to read all the printed Salinger is very easy. He wrote one great novel and several short stories, and his collected works can easily be read in a weekend. But soaking in Salinger took me an entire summer and left me well aware of how much more time would be required to say anything insightful about these works.
I was told that if I did not love Salinger as a young adult—and I certainly didn’t—then he would never make sense to me. Perhaps this is so, but my middle age self responded for the first time to him. He was pleasurable in a way that he was not when I was younger.
Why? Partly it was because my childhood was too happy for me to enjoy the books. It is an unfortunate truth of my life that I loved my parents, my country, my school, most of my teachers, and enjoyed almost every minute of childhood. Seeing the troubles of the world and shouldering some well-earned shame, brought on by my own grievous fault, has cured me of that inability.
So these are the comments of a mere reader of Salinger, pleading the indulgence of scholars. I read to learn and this is what I learned.
Salinger is steeped in sorrow and longing and a frustration with materialism of all sorts. The famously reclusive author may have tried to escape the world, but stories about his personal life indicate no monastic discipline in his pursuit.
His characters despise much of the culture, but are aware that they are not any better than the culture they (rightly) despise. A few of my students, though certainly not the two who got me reading Salinger this summer, have missed this point. They read Salinger for his critique of their parent’s culture, but miss his critique of the critic.
There is a subtlety in Salinger that reminded me of Nietzsche. The philosopher would despise Richard Dawkins as much as the Pope. My young atheist students sometimes enjoy Nietzsche’s writings on the Church, but forget the philosopher’s writings about the artist, the scientist, or the secularist. Salinger too seems torn by his criticisms, knowing that the very culture of material prosperity he attacks feted his Catcher and allowed him to live as he wished.
How much does a prophet suffer when his jeremiads are honored in his own home?
This is a profound sorrow. Salinger’s character Franny prays the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”), but not as a Christian. She seems to love Jesus, but not the Jesus of the Gospels. Her brother points out her problem: Jesus is not Saint Francis. The Christ might inspire Saint Francis, but He is at once cruder and more sublime than that great saint.
I was left thinking that Salinger not only thought Christianity false, but was resentful that this was true. It is too bad that a Kingdom based on love is a chimera. It is too bad that the material world is both so attractive and so destructive to the soul of men. It is sad to be a man.
There is a longing at the heart of all Salinger. The young men and women at the center of the book want to be good. They wish to save children from danger, the meaning of the “catcher in the rye” image, by snatching them from a decayed culture. But Salinger never, so far as I can see, tells us to what they will be saved.
“You must,” he says, “change,” but there is no world in which a changed man could live and no clear picture of what a change would look like. In the secondary literature I read, there was much made of Salinger’s obvious interest in Eastern religions, but the published Salinger is deeply Christian and deeply disappointed in Christendom.
Being a Christian might be fine, but in practice Christian civilization (at least America) is wretched . . . except when it is not. Salinger is not even sure in his condemnations: doubt permeates everything. He is too insightful to buy any ready-made answer, but too noble to give way to total despair. I felt some hope for all his characters, even the one who killed himself, but no idea what it was that was the ground of my hope.
Salinger is angry with culture without confidence that his anger is fully justified and not just self-indulgence. His characters long for something better without any idea what better is. They are sad without being sure that even their sorrow is not a put-on or a residue of marketing.
Salinger left me with more sorrow, honest sorrow, than any writer of the late sixties. Hope without any hope of finding a reason for hope seems the worst sort of fraud. For the first time, I understood Peter Beagle’s suggestion (in a preface to Lord of the Rings) that the sixties were no fouler than the fifties . . . they simply reaped the fifties’ foul harvest.
Salinger proves this true.
Surely there is significance that he followed young “quiz kids” over the course of their lives. These “brightest and best” knew the answers, but they did not know the questions. Did Salinger ever find out the right questions? If so, I did not see it in his published works.
It could be that reading Lord of the Rings as a young man did me more good than I knew. They taught me hope tempered by realism, but no sense of despair. I had a longing for Middle Earth and the High Elves, but this longing did not lead me to despair. Because it was mythological, it caused me to seek for my true home in higher things. It never occurred to me that a career or success could make me happy, because there were no hobbits in the world!
I expected less of “reality” and so was less disappointed in reality. Salinger’s characters (and perhaps Salinger?) are disappointed that people are so trivial when they have eternity in their hearts. My “fantasy worlds” never suggested to me that eternity could be found this side of Paradise. What I wanted was so far removed from what actually was that I was spared that mistake, though I certainly fell into other errors.
Salinger captivated me, because he let me see what it would have been like to grow up in an America where prosperity and power were confused with virtue. As a pastor’s kid, I escaped this through no goodness of my own. It never occurred to me as I prayed for Pentecostal power to seek my happiness in “answers,” because any answer that came into my head was surely too small for a miracle-working God.
Salinger spent this summer reminding me that this world is not my home, that no external is anything but a vanity, and that I am wretched without a hope grounded in reality. Salinger made me read John’s gospel with a new passion and with less complacency, and so I am very thankful to him.
John Mark Reynolds is an author, speaker, and philosopher.