I don’t think there has been anything like it on college campuses since the 1950s with the sudden captivation with J.D. Salinger of students and teachers alike. After the appearance of Salinger’s only novel, The Catcher in the Rye (in 1951) we all eagerly awaited the publication of each succeeding new short story and avidly pounced upon them in newsstands as they appeared, one after the other, in The New Yorker.
J.D. Salinger died on February 24 at age 91 and hearing of his death thrust me back to my freshman year at Stanford in 1955 when I first read Catcher and, like so many young people then, I felt he captured something of my late adolescent feelings about loneliness and separateness.
After Catcher and Nine Stories (l953) came Franny and Raise High the Roof-Beam, in 1955, then Zooey in 1957, and then Seymour: An Introduction – published in 1959, the year I graduated from college and that was pretty much it. His final New Yorker story, Hapworth 16, 1924 (published in 1965), was a disappointment and has not to this day, been reissued by a publisher.
However, as I began teaching high school 12th grade English in 1960-61, I found myself turning to Catcher and to several of the Nine Stories as sure-fire ways to engage students in reading and writing. Though it seems almost a cliché now, in those days comparing Holden Caulfield to Huck Finn, for example, offered rich opportunities for discussions of style as well as a wide variety of critiques of American society – its hypocrisies, meanness, insensitivity to children, and the consequent alienation felt by sensitive and caring youth. Salinger has, subsequently been roundly criticized as over-romanticizing the innocence of children but, be that as it may, he captured something precious about youth and innocence that has earned his place in the highest pantheon of American writers.
Finally, as much as I enjoyed teaching Catcher one of his short stories, I believe, is also quite extraordinary and ranks up there with the finest short stories in the English language. For Esmé –With Love and Squalor grew out of Salinger’s World War II experiences and is nearly perfect in its execution.
At the beginning of the story, a World War II soldier stationed in England has a chance encounter with a delightful and precocious young girl. They exchange addresses. Later in the story he is a war-damaged, obviously disturbed victim of combat. At one point he asks himself, “Fathers and teachers, I ponder, ‘what is hell?’ I maintain it is the suffering of being unable to love.” Soon after, he receives a sweet letter and loving gift from the young girl. Clearly the letter has helped him recover his balance.
J.D. Salinger, I believe, has helped millions of readers find some measure of perspective and compassion. His writings were and continue to be a delight and a solace.
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