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J.D. Salinger, American Literary Icon, Dies at 91

January 28, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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J.D. Salinger, the enigmatic American author best known for his classic novel "Catcher in the Rye" died Wednesday at the age of 91. Jim Lehrer talks to experts about the author's influence on American literature.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the final going of J.D. Salinger, one of America’s most read and least known writers of fiction. He died of natural causes yesterday at his home near Cornish, New Hampshire, at the age of 91. More than 60 million copies of his 1951 novel “Catcher in the Rye” have been sold, read, worshiped, and studied.

And it made the central character, Holden Caulfield, better known than Salinger himself. He dropped out of public sight when he was 45 years old, never seen and seldom heard in print since 1965. His other few books included “Franny and Zooey,” “Nine Stories,” “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.”

We examine the Salinger legacy and mystery with Nicholas Delbanco, an author of more than 20 books himself — he’s the director of the creative writing program at the University of Michigan — and, Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

Nic Delbanco, why has “Catcher in the Rye” mattered so much to so many for so long?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO, University of Michigan: A serious question and one that a quick read of the book goes a long way to answering.

I think that Salinger, perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously, captured what we proudly call the zeitgeist, a particular way of looking at the world we shared. And he did so in an original fashion.

The novel bears a certain degree of lineage from kinship to Huck Finn, that other great colloquial witness who is a teenage boy studying society. But it was in its own way a first of a kind, and it really hasn’t been replaced, though its imitators are legion.

JIM LEHRER: What was the original about “Catcher in the Rye.”

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: I think the voice in the opening beat announces early on and absolutely authoritatively that we’re in the presence of not so much an outcast of society as someone who hasn’t yet found his comfortable place within it, who looks at it keenly, though, through the eyes of an adolescent, and who is, you know, preternaturally alert to that repeated word phoniness.

He just sees things around him and talks about them with a kind of unearned authority that’s thoroughly endearing and, to the young reader, persuasive.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Sure.

Robert Thompson, would you agree that there was more to Holden Caulfield than just a character in a novel? He became a cultural figure as well, and remains so to this day?

ROBERT THOMPSON, Syracuse University: Yes, that’s true.

And where does one start? Even though this guy only left four books — it’s a pretty small canon — it was really a whopper of a canon when it came to 20th century culture.

And it’s interesting about — it’s not like Salinger invented the notion of the disaffected youth. Goethe had done that with “The Sorrows of Young Werther” a long time ago. And others had done it as well.

But it is this kind of combination of a deep sincerity, a spirituality, this state-of-the-art vernacular. This guy was talking the way we were talking at that very period.

And then I think the last thing that really went into this equation was, it became part of the public school curriculum. I have to confess, as much as Salinger has been an important part of my literary life, I first entered into his world because I had to. I was assigned to read it.

And I think a lot of those copies that were sold of “Catcher in the Rye” were originally introduced to kids who were reading it as part of a curriculum. And that’s an interesting part of the whole Salinger story.

JIM LEHRER: Nic, is “Catcher in the Rye” still part of the national curriculum?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: It certainly is at the high school level, a little less so at the college and the graduate school level.

But, if I may…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: … I thought I would read you the first sentence of the book, because it really does describe what Robert Thompson has just — or does demonstrate what Robert Thompson has just described.

So, here it is.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you will probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap. But I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

JIM LEHRER: Oh, man.

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: So, “if you want to know the truth” becomes the operational assertion there. And that “David Copperfield kind of crap” is a canny tip of the cap to one of his predecessors, the youthful hero of a Dickens novel.

But he’s saying, I’m going to do something different. I’m going to be, as Robert Thompson just said, disaffected, but straightforward nonetheless.

So, yes, it goes straight to the heart and into the ear of the — in particular, I would say, adolescent reader.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Robert, take us to the next step in J.D. Salinger’s life. What is known or what’s the best guess that you have heard about why he disappeared, why he’s remained in that small house in Cornish — outside Cornish, New Hampshire, all these years?

ROBERT THOMPSON: Yes.

Well, who knows?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

ROBERT THOMPSON: I think maybe the answer is, he was a little nutty.

We get very little evidence. His daughter wrote a book. And a woman that he had a relationship wrote a book. So, we get little pieces here and there. And, presumably, the basic part of the story is, he really loved to write, but he didn’t love to publish. He didn’t like the idea of notoriety and fame.

And this makes him an unbelievably interesting character, especially in contemporary America, in that he’s going completely against the American grain. Most people would do anything for the attention and the slobbering attention that fame brings.

Here’s a guy where fame is falling into his lap, and he builds a wall around it. He is the antithesis of “American Idol,” the antithesis of reality TV. And, in an odd way, that makes him really, really cool.

I think one of the reasons we continue to be so fascinated by this guy is that he doesn’t behave by the usual American laws of physics.

JIM LEHRER: Nic, do you buy the rumors that go around that there’s a whole closet full of J.D. Salinger manuscripts that he’s written through the years, he enjoyed writing them, and, picking up on Robert’s point, that he didn’t want to publish them, but some — now we’re going to find them now that he’s dead?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: I see no reason to disbelieve that. We do have, in fact, startlingly little evidence. But my best guess is that the habit of writing was one that he was unable to break and didn’t want to. It was, as Robert said, the publication that got on his nerves.

The only argument I have with what was just said, or the only caveat I want to add to it, is that, in a paradoxical way, his refusal to go public increased his fame.

If he had been on talk shows for the last 45 or 50 years, he would be that old geezer, that old windbag that everybody had had too much of. In fact, in America, once you have a degree of fame — think of Howard Hughes or present publishing author Thomas Pynchon — it’s a very canny career move, as it were, to refuse to grant interviews and to be private.

I think, in this case, it was probably a personal imperative, and not a professional choice. But, in many ways, we find him more interesting because we know nothing about him than we would if we were used to seeing him age.

And that’s one of the startling — or at least shocking — aspects of his death at 91. He still looks to all of us like the 45-year-old who last permitted his photograph to be taken.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

You buy that, too, Robert?

ROBERT THOMPSON: Yes, I think that’s absolutely true.

I think — I’m surprised more people haven’t tried to become famous by doing what Salinger did. But most people could not keep still for that long.

As for his death, you know, in many ways, Salinger is as alive for me today as he was yesterday. After all, he’s not writing anything more that I get to write. I don’t hear anything new about him. And what Salinger brings, I think, to all of us are those four extraordinary books that bear reading over and over and over again.

JIM LEHRER: Well said.

Robert, Nic, thank you both very much.

ROBERT THOMPSON: Thank you.

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: Thank you.