Reading Lillian Ross’s reminiscence of JD Salinger, in this week’s New Yorker, I was struck by her mention of his telling her, over the years – and thus, presumably, long after the appearance of what would be his last published story – that he wrote constantly, working “long and crazy hours.” You’d think, given his litigious nature, that he was working on letters to his lawyer and various judges. But to me, at least, Ross implies that he was writing fiction, and not only for himself – that is, with a view toward getting it published.
What became of this stuff? Had he lost his discipline, in the wake of his huge success with Catcher in the Rye, this success having robbed him of the compulsion to see anything through – to prove that his writing, and the thoughts it conveyed, were worthwhile? Was he like Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould – too close to his material, and too wedded to the idea of writing as score-settling, and emotional release, that he needed each line to be too perfect, and too full of rancor, love, and longing, and so never got far enough into anything to feel he had a draft, much less a finished verson? Or did he produce a pile of stories, and perhaps a few novels, but wasn’t happy with any of them?
My bet is on the big pile. His writing is so fluid, suggesting an ease in constructing characters and narratives, and finding graceful ways to convey them, and I can’t believe he lost that after 1965. I’d bet too that he was right not to publish anything that’s in the pile. His work charms because he so perfectly captures the precious-verging-on-fey voice, concerns, and worldview of the precocious, sensitive teenager – this is true even in his stories with adult protagonists. And to the extent his reputation not only survived, but prospered, over the years, that was due to his being read, identified with, and loved by a new set of precocious, sensitive teenagers, each year – and idolized, with ever-more fervor, by adults who’d been in their shoes way back when, and now long for the days before grown-up life’s demands forced them to make all the choices, and thus all the compromises, that Salinger’s characters mock as insincere and phony. His real-life dealings, with everyone outside his adopted home town, suggest that he clung tightly to his characters’ teenage persona to the end of his days – and so presumably couldn’t have written anything from any other point of view. Could this stuff, coming from a 60- or 70-year-old writer, pass the giggle test? Almost certainly not – and even if it had, it could never have meant, to all those millions who worshipped him, anywhere near what Catcher had meant.