J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Sky
There is no character in literature that I instantly identified with more than Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye.
Salinger passed away this week, at the age of 91. A comprehensive and accurate article on his life and work is on Wikipedia.
On November 6, 1999, I wrote the following five-star Amazon.com review of The Catcher in the Rye, with the subject line “A story of a grief observed”:
The Catcher in the Rye is one of the half dozen books which I’ve read over a hundred times in the 30 or so years since I first encountered it. Being a troubled teenager when I read it, I identified with Holden, and when I became a writer, it was hard for me at first to shake Holden’s narrative voice and find my own. I’ve studied the book to death, and read most of the critical books about it and its author, J.D. Salinger, but somehow everyone has focused on the book’s language and Holden’s teenage alienation, without ever getting their brains around the central point to the book.
Holden Caulfield is a teenage boy who’s lost his younger brother, Allie, and is terrified that something equally horrible might happen to his younger sister, Phoebe. All his obsessions — the title of the book itself — have to do with his inability to deal with the grief of his loss, his distrust of a universe that could do this, and his wish that he could wrap his arms around innocent children like his lost brother and protect them forever — protect them from falling off a cliff as “the catcher in the rye.”
It’s not just The Catcher in the Rye that I read and studied. Excluding the bootleg release of Salinger’s uncollected magazine fiction, I read everything by and about J.D. Salinger that was carried by the New York Public Library.
I read the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P Kinsella — a novel in which the viewpoint character, who is also named Kinsella, kidnaps J.D. Salinger to take him to a baseball game, and I corresponded with W.P. Kinsella about Salinger. When Shoeless Joe was made into the classic movie Field of Dreams J.D. Salinger became a fictitious novelist played by James Earl Jones.
Another great movie, Finding Forrester, also fictionalized J.D. Salinger, as a reclusive one-novel author played by Sean Connery.
I have a cousin who roomed with J.D. Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, at college and who visited with J.D. Salinger, and through her parents I received a lot of inside information about the reclusive author.
Very early in his career, Salinger met Ernest Hemingway, who took the younger writer under his wing, corresponding with him for years afterward. But J.D. Salinger did not pay this forward, shunning correspondence from younger writers for most of his life. I was one of those younger Salinger-influenced writers who tried and failed.
J.D. Salinger is one of four authors I’ve considered my literary quartet of major influences, the other three being C.S. Lewis, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ayn Rand. Lewis died when I was ten, and I never got the chance to correspond with him, though I have met and corresponded with his stepson, Douglas Gresham. I interviewed Robert A. Heinlein in 1973, and we became friends to the end of his life, and both he and his wife, Virginia, were generous in their friendship. Also in 1973 I had the chance to argue on the phone for about four hours with Ayn Rand.
J.D. Salinger was the only one of the four alive during my writing career with whom I never managed to make a personal contact.
I’ve told friends — only half-jokingly — for many years that I intended to write a novel that combined Salinger’s approach to writing young characters with the approach Robert A. Heinlein took in young-adult novels like Between Planets and Tunnel in the Sky — and that I was going to title the novel, The Catcher in the Sky.
I consider J.D. Salinger to be one of the greatest fiction writers who ever lived, as a storyteller, as a master craftsman, as a stylist, and as a creator of lifelike characters. He also had a lot of virtues as a human being. But he was deeply flawed in his choices of how to relate to people who admired his work, and with other writers.
The other three writers in my quartet — C.S. Lewis, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ayn Rand — were all generous with their admirers, and maintained friendships with other writers. All of them were bestselling authors during their lifetimes. All of them had followers as fanatically devoted and persistently intrusive as J.D. Salinger. All of them managed the consequences of celebrity with far more grace and basic human decency.
When it came to dealing with the world, J.D. Salinger was as mean as Ebenezer Scrooge … and no Jacob Marley managed to save him.
J.D. Salinger’s contemptuous regard for his fans is best reflected in his decision never to allow a film adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye. This is usually attributed to a bad film adaptation of his short story, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” made into the mawkish 1949 Susan Hayward soap-opera, My Foolish Heart — which also featured Kent Smith, who the same year played Peter Keating in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
But that explanation won’t wash.
J.D. Salinger achieved in his lifetime the ultimate bargaining power for the filming of his work, equal to Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling. He could have handpicked the director, the cast, and demanded he be an executive producer with name above the title, and could have had not only final script approval but his own final cut of the movie — something Ayn Rand demanded for Atlas Shrugged and never achieved.
It was just stupid for J.D. Salinger not to choose a Clint Eastwood, a Martin Scorsese, a John Hughes, or a Cameron Crowe to shepherd The Catcher in the Rye to the screen while he was still alive. The movie will eventually be made, even if the world has to wait for the copyright to expire in 2046. Now, the immortal J.D. Salinger will have no more say about who adapts his novel to the screen than William Shakespeare has about Romeo and Juliet and Charles Dickens has about A Christmas Carol.
I’m pretty sure that whatever restrictions Salinger’s will or trust (if he did not die intestate) imposes on his heirs, executor, or trustees — regarding the sale of his literary rights to the movies — would not withstand a court challenge.
So we just might see Taylor Lautner play Holden Caulfield — directed by Clint Eastwood or Martin Scorsese — after all.
I, for one, can’t wait.
My comic thriller Lady Magdalene’s — a movie I wrote, produced, directed, and acted in it — is now available for sale or rental on Amazon.com Video On Demand. If you like the way I think, I think you’ll like this movie. Check it out!