It will either happen today or February 14, 1958 when I am sixteen. It is ridiculous to mention even.
When people in my generation haven’t been in contact for a long time, or haven’t posted to their webpage or other expected forms of social media/communication, they tend to break the silence with the phrase “I’m alive” or, less frequently, “I’m not dead.” Where this custom originated is hard to trace, like any viral meme of our culture, but it is surely prevalent. When my father took a long absence from posting on his page, a relative wrote in fear that something had happened. It’s hard to argue that this is the frequent concern of people when a long absence is experienced, but our society tends to “go there” pretty quickly. J.D. Salinger is probably about as far from a social media type person as I can imagine living into the twenty-first century.
On November 22, 1963, Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis died. No one particularly noticed because John F. Kennedy was shot that day as well.
In a discussion of next steps for my new novel American Dream On, my father purported that the fifty best books written in the last hundred years were never published. I told him that if I believed that, I would give up all hope. And while part of my disproof for his theory is The Catcher in the Rye, part of his rebuttal might include the unpublished works Salinger has famously kept in a safe for much of the last few decades. My excitement for the release of these works is perhaps the only heartening element of the developments of Wednesday.
I want them to have a nice time while they’re alive, because they like having a nice time… But they don’t love me and Booper – that’s my sister – that way. I mean they don’t seem able to love us just the way we are. They don’t seem able to love us unless they can keep changing us a little bit. They love their reasons for loving us almost as much as they love us, and most of the time more. It’s not so good, that way.
When I was 18, I compiled a list of the hundred best books of all-time. All Salinger’s four published works made the cut, ranging from 10th (Catcher) to 61st (Franny and Zooey). Catcher had slipped to 12th on my list by 2002, but checks in at 5th on the composite list of 73 Blue Pyramid friends and visitors. Franny and Zooey is 69th. In 2008, I finally got around to compiling my favorite 17 short stories of all-time. They were bookended by Salinger works from Nine Stories, with “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” checking in 17th and “Teddy” 1st.
J.D. Salinger was born in 1919. Ray Bradbury was born in 1920. Richard Adams was born in 1920. Kurt Vonnegut was born in 1922. Howard Zinn was born in 1922.
Salinger’s obituaries were coated with accounts of his life as a recluse. These overshadowed any particular discussion of his works and their enormous qualities. His life was discussed as the story of potential gone bad, of talent gone crazy, of a light of the world snuffed out by his own misanthropy. There were the isolation and the lawsuits and the affairs and the urine-drinking rumors and everything beneath tepid notes about Catcher that still couldn’t resist citing the man who shot John Lennon. And censorship. Outcry. Controversy.
But I wouldn’t have had to get incarnated in an American body if I hadn’t met that lady. I mean it’s very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America. People think you’re a freak if you try to.
I haven’t been posting Duck and Covers lately because my scanner is broken. It used to have trouble, but now it seems completely ka-put. My phone line has been out for days, too, if you’ve been trying to get ahold of me. It keeps saying the line is in use and when I pick it up, the dialtone is replaced by a noise that sounds like someone is on the other line, but has set the phone down for a bit. I’d imagine it generates a perpetual busy-signal to anyone who tries to call. It’s had trouble like that before, where it hangs up on anyone calling in, but with this problem I can’t call out either.
Ray Bradbury and Richard Adams are still alive. They are hoping to turn 90 this year.
Salinger had allegedly promised the release of all his unpublished works upon his death, though it’s unlikely his estate will grant the right of others to hijack Holden Caulfield for use in an examination of what he’d think of being alive at 70. My suspicion was always that he didn’t want someone to write that book because he’d already written it, but that remains to be seen. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen over a devastatingly long period of time to come. Were there any justice in the publishing industry, all 15-20 tomes would be released in quick succession, maybe one a month, a cavalcade of Salinger’s views on the world we’ve lived through for the last half-century. But at their pace, we’ll be lucky to live long enough to read all of Salinger’s already written work. Hell, they haven’t even released The Pale King yet… nor do they plan to for 15 months.
My sister was only a very tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.
On January 7, 2010, I sent American Dream On to twenty-two volunteer readers. Five more have since added themselves to the list. As of today (January 29, 2010), only three have finished reading the book. None of them have full-time jobs or are attending school.
On January 27, 2010, Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger died. Between these two events, President Barack Obama addressed the nation on its State for the first official time in his tenure. He noted that “it’s tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable – that America was always destined to succeed.” He seemed to be warning against impending calamity. He went on to conclude that “We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation. But I also know this: If people had made that decision 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and their grandchildren.” His dire tone about America’s future was belied by his eternal affable smile, made somehow more Bushlike by its inappropriateness while trying to empathize with unemployed families or explaining why US soldiers will continue to kill Afghans after a decade of doing so. Bush at least kept the smile to the corners of his mouth, always on the verge of an inappropriate grin. Obama’s grin seems to crest, convincing you that he’s really enjoying himself up there despite the calamity he portends.
Salinger’s reclusion begs the question of why one is writing at all. He insisted that he enjoyed writing for himself, noting notedly in 1974 that “There’s a marvelous peace in not publishing. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” With all appropriate apologies, Jerome, this is phony. You were being a phony when you said this. People who believe that do not write. They sit around and think their own thoughts. And if they do write, if they do find some pathological urge to put their thoughts to paper because they love the artisanship of crafting the idea despite not wanting to share it, they insist their works get burned upon their death. Or they burn them themselves, just to make sure. (You’ll note Kafka, who was not born in the early 1920’s, never did this.) Certainly they do not insist their works are published upon their death. People who do that cannot live with the repercussions of their misunderstanding, Jerome, but they also cannot live without trying to be understood. Without trying to share what they have to share with the world. So I see that. I see you. I see that you could not face the same tribulation and misunderstanding that plagued Catcher, that plagued Holden. But you had to try anyway. You had to try to get out a message, to be understood. Which is what we will wait for, obnoxious greedy publishers’ delay or no.
For example, I have a swimming lesson in about five minutes. I could go downstairs to the pool, and there might not be any water in it. This might be the day they change the water or something. What might happen, though, I might walk to the edge of it, just to have a look at the bottom, for instance, and my sister might come up and sort of push me in. I could fracture my skull and die instantaneously.
In February, Emily will return to classes and I will start writing Good God and the Rutgers team will start debating again and I will buy a new scanner/printer and get my phone fixed and I will turn thirty years old. In February. Which is still three days hence.
J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, and Howard Zinn fought in World War II. Richard Adams was in the British Army for the duration of the war, but did not fight in it. Ray Bradbury was writing science fiction stories.
We write to be understood. No matter how hard that is, how long the odds are, how impossible it might seem. His literary agent said “Salinger had remarked that he was in this world but not of it.” It is hard to imagine a more fitting epitaph for this writer, for any writer. But being in creates an obligation, an obligation to try to be understood. He tried. His works will try. The only reason to write, really, is to make contact with other human beings. He was a coward, perhaps, or made a desperate failed attempt not to let personality overshadow works which he wanted to speak for themselves. But he wanted, wants, will want, to be understood.
Halfway down the passage, a stewardess was sitting on a chair outside the galleyway, reading a magazine and smoking a cigarette. Nicholson went down to her, consulted her briefly, thanked her, then took a few additional steps forwardship and opened a heavy metal door that read: TO THE POOL. It opened onto a narrow, uncarpeted staircase. He was little more than halfway down the staircase when he heard an all-piercing, sustained scream – clearly coming from a small, female child. It was highly acoustical, as though it were reverberating within four tiled walls.