Feeling sorry for Salinger

Was J.D. Salinger mentally ill?

Was J.D. Salinger mentally ill?

OK, J.D. Salinger was a good writer, and he died at an advanced age. May he rest in peace. But I don’t think The Catcher in the Rye is one of the greatest novels of the last—or any—century. Instead, I see it as part of the problem with American literature: a fascination with self that gets in the way of art.

Holden Caulfield is just another face, at another age, for Rabbit Angstrom, John Updike’s incredibly self-involved hero through several novels. Or any man in any Philip Roth novel, or any Norman Mailer novel. Or any Saul Bellow novel. Or, for that matter (and with a few caveats), any John Irving novel.

And rather than seeing J.D. Salinger as a literary idol, I guess I’ve always felt sorry for him. When a middle-aged woman retreats to her home and refuses outside contact, we call that depression, anxiety and agoraphobia, and it gets treated.

When a middle-aged man does it, he’s an eccentric artist. To me, it’s pretty obvious that the guy was mentally ill. That he was able to write at all is a miracle; to turn his illness into a mystery is, to my mind, a bit ghoulish.

Then there’s the literal ghoulish stuff associated with The Catcher in the Rye, like Mark David Chapman’s fascination with it (he had a copy on him the night he shot John Lennon).

On the other hand, about six months after I read The Catcher in the Rye, I read another book that can only be described as life-changing.

To call A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, “eye-opening” would be to diminish the book’s power.

Leaving aside the fact that Salinger wrote fiction and Zinn was an historian, for me, the big difference between them was their engagement in the world. While Salinger surrendered to mental illness (or perhaps just his own private demons), Zinn remained involved with the world and the people in it, right up to the end. I have no doubt about which of them was happier and more fulfilled. I’ll miss Howard Zinn’s presence in the world and praise his contributions. I just feel sorry for Salinger.

Compiled from Bibliolatry.