Let me get this little bit out of the way right now: Louis Menand of The New Yorker wrote the following about "The Catcher in the Rye" ten years ago and I don’t think it’s been said any better and I have the good fortune of being wise enough not to try to.
“The Catcher in the Rye” is a sympathetic portrait of a boy who refuses to be socialized which has become (among certain readers, anyway, for it is still occasionally banned in conservative school districts) a standard instrument of socialization. I was introduced to the book by my parents, people who, if they had ever imagined that I might, after finishing the thing, run away from school, smoke like a chimney, lie about my age in bars, solicit a prostitute, or use the word “goddam” in every third sentence, would (in the words of the story) have had about two hemorrhages apiece. Somehow, they knew this wouldn’t be the effect.
Supposedly, kids respond to “The Catcher in the Rye” because they recognize themselves in the character of Holden Caulfield. Salinger is imagined to have given voice to what every adolescent, or, at least, every sensitive, intelligent, middle-class adolescent, thinks but is too inhibited to say, which is that success is a sham, and that successful people are mostly phonies. Reading Holden’s story is supposed to be the literary equivalent of looking in a mirror for the first time. This seems to underestimate the originality of the book. Fourteen-year-olds, even sensitive, intelligent, middle-class fourteen-year-olds, generally do not think that success is a sham, and if they sometimes feel unhappy, or angry, or out of it, it’s not because they think most other people are phonies. The whole emotional burden of adolescence is that you don’t know why you feel unhappy, or angry, or out of it. The appeal of “The Catcher in the Rye,” what makes it addictive, is that it provides you with a reason. It gives a content to chemistry.
Alright, are we good? Good. So let’s start with what is generally (?) known of J.D. Salinger: American writer, famous recluse, Holden Caulfield, Mark David Chapman/Lennon, and perhaps some stories about the Glass family. And to that, add this: J(erome) D(avid) Salinger, grandson of a rabbi, son of a *ham* and cheese importer/father and a mother who hid her true Irish-Scottish (read: not Jewish) roots until after his bar-mitzvah. Of course, it was not until the deluge of tributes today that some (most) of us may have first sifted through his biographical information with any topical urgency. Now that we have, can we just concede that there is enough material in that early biography for a lifetime’s worth of not only storytelling–Great American or other–but a level of torture that is so specifically Jewish that, if amplified, it might give the entire Bernard Malamud canon a run for its money? (This is, of course, not even a slight knock on Malamud.) So why do we not place Salinger in the Malamud-Bellow-Roth-Mailer pantheon of 21st century Jewish American writers? Well, first of all, while we know about his roots, little is known about whether he identified as Jewish later much beyond his youth and, from the few interviews he gave in his long and winding life, not much has been parsed. We do know that later in his life he was partial to some eccentric ideologies. Some literary authorities suggest that because Salinger so deftly camouflaged the Jewish experience in his writing it became unrecognizable. Therefore we, tortured as we are, couldn’t really claim him. Janet Malcolm, in a typically blistering essay, adds it’s not that Salinger didn’t find the Jewish experience salient or pure (she admits we’ll never really know), but rather, that because those edges were blurred the alchemy of solitude in his stories were made more universal. Characters, beyond the obvious Caulfield, like Franny Glass exhibited symptoms of isolation and outsiderness that really feel particularly “Jewish” (gleamed from what is either known by us or found in the works of the aforementioned the Jewish greats). But they also feel human in a way washed of any explicit tribal suffering. This irked Jews like Maxwell Geismar whom Malcolm quotes: "The locale of the New York sections is obviously that of a comfortable middle-class urban Jewish society where, however, all the leading figures have become beautifully Anglicized. Holden and Phoebe Caulfield: what perfect American social register names which are presented to us in both a social and a psychological void!" To echo Malcolm, perhaps it resonated because it was a sting so bare and unadorned. As for the rest of Salinger’s bio, well, a glancing over of it smacks of what many (or at least I, perhaps foolishly) would consider a very American experience: he hated high school on the Upper West Side, flunked out, hated military school, wrote about that, hated college, popped in and out of places, wrote banal and formulaic stories, they were rejected, wrote more, was published, was drafted for World War II (spoke German well enough to interrogate POWs and deserters), wrote about his service ("For Esmé — With Love and Squalor" is one of his best and most haunting), landed on Utah Beach on D-Day, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, had a breakdown, was one of the first to walk into a liberated camp, befriended Hemingway all the while, published more brilliant stories, slipped off the radar more, experimented with Eastern religions, Christian Science, Dianetics/other crackpot philosophies, wrote more stories, then wrote ones without stark endings that were circular and so brilliant that people called them too weird to be enjoyed, had affairs with younger women, married a few times and had a few children (one delegate from both his wives and children wrote damning books about him calling him abusive, brooding, drinker of his own urine), sold the movie rights to a story for money, was dismayed by the outcome of the movie, never sold film rights again, had more affairs with younger women while locked up in the New Hampshire hinterlands, kept fellow reclusive friends, stopped publishing stories in 1965, remarried, stopped interviewing in 1980, sat quietly on a growing cache of unpublished work for 45 years, died at 91. Perhaps this later Salinger biography (sparse in its convention, mythical in its hermeticism), the adult version of the one to which Menand so aptly links youth and Caulfield, is a reflection that says something about Jews in America. Something unspecific, something, like his work, inchoate and generally unsaid by the great Jewish American writers: we’ve arrived, our travails are universal, we don’t have to name our experiences so much. Or perhaps we do. I suppose once all of Salinger’s hidden treasures are pillaged and finally published, we can enjoy trying to claim him.