When J.D. Salinger died of natural causes last month at age 91 at his home in Cornish, N.H., Facebook walls everywhere were immediately covered with Salinger quotations.
Here are a couple that got a lot of traction:
“Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
“I hope to hell that when I do die somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody.”
The thing that struck me and kind of bugged me about this is that the quotes were attributed to Salinger, which is true, of course—he did write them—but not the whole truth. The majority, maybe all, of the quotations I saw plastered on the virtual walls came from Salinger's most famous work, his 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye.
The novel is narrated by Holden Caulfield, an unhappy 17-year-old who gets kicked out of an elite prep school and then spends a few lonely days in New York City trying to figure things out. It's Holden whose bitter despair is reflected in those lines, not necessarily Salinger's.
This is not a minor point.
Writers choose to write fiction for different reasons, and the amount of autobiographical detail will vary, but no matter how much the life or mind of a character seems to parallel the author's, particularly in the case of the first-person narrating voice (think Henry Chinaski for Charles Bukowski), we can't take the words of the character as simply paralleling the opinions, feelings or beliefs of the author. Positioning a work as fiction places a responsibility on the shoulders of the reader, and that is the responsibility of qualification.
But with a reclusive writer like Salinger, who was very protective of his privacy and granted almost no interviews in his life, it has been doubly tempting for fans and critics to conflate the perspectives of the young, alienated anti-hero with his creator.
One catalyst for this conflation comes from a rare 1953 interview Salinger granted to a high-school newspaper in Cornish. Salinger admitted to the young interviewer, “My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book. ... [I]t was a great relief telling people about it.”
That comment, one of the few he ever made publicly about the character, certainly adds fuel to the fire of the argument that Caulfield is Salinger.
Also grounding that temptation is Salinger's comment, in a 1946 letter to Ernest Hemingway, that he was writing a play about Caulfield (who'd appeared previously in his short story “Slight Rebellion off Madison”) and hoped to play the part himself.
But just because Salinger wanted to play Caulfield onstage or acknowledged that Caulfield's boyhood was a lot like his own, the novel was a novel and not a memoir. As Salinger told the high-school interviewer, the novel was only “sort of” autobiographical.
So unless she or he tells us—and Salinger didn't—we can never really know if the author's thoughts are reflected in the character's words.
And that's the salient point: You must not assume that what-ever Holden Caulfield says is what Salinger believed, either as an adult writing the book in 1951 or as a teenager going through experiences very similar to Holden's, no matter how compelling it may be to do so.
In looking more closely at the two quotes, consider how they play on Facebook.
Distributed unproblematically as Salinger quotes, Caulfield's gloomy condemnations become positioned as words of wisdom, words to live by, the sage ruminations of a genius.
But Caulfield is a young, unformed antihero. He feels alienated from others because he's still traumatized from the death of his younger brother. Caulfield hints toward the end of the story that he ended up in a mental institution for a time. His words are to be taken with quite a grain of salt.
Yes, Salinger didn't tell the press or public very much, but it's not the same as “not telling anybody anything.” Salinger was married three times, had two children, had several relationships with women he didn't marry and explored multiple religious traditions both alone and in communities, including a Hindu temple.
The sadness and isolation of Caulfield's comment doesn't really reflect the way Salinger himself discussed his own reclusiveness. In another rare interview, granted to The New York Times in 1974, Salinger said, “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. ... I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” And on the dust jacket of his novel Franny and Zooey, he wrote: “It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.”
For Salinger, being out of the public eye, “not telling anybody anything,” had more to do, it seems, with maintaining happiness than it did turning away from human relationships.
And in keeping with the private nature of his life, there was no public mention after his recent death of funeral or burial arrangements, but it's doubtful that Salinger's last wishes were to be dumped in a river.
Still, I'm realistic enough to know that people will probably keep passing along the words of fiction writers without paying attention to whether the author actually said them, or rather conjured them to give life to an imaginary character.
As Holden said, “People never notice anything.” Write to email@example.com and editor@ sdcitybeat.com.