Posted here by Dave Eggers, one of the best writers today.
January 29, 2010
Remembering Salinger: Dave Eggers
I first want to say that I think this is a very sad week for American letters. Howard Zinn was the embodiment of the term “living legend,” and his effect on how we see and teach history is immeasurable. And the man worked till the very end, it seems. He’d just done work at Mission High School here in San Francisco last year. He was an astonishing guy; it’s hard to think of what the landscape would look like without him.
To lose Salinger the same week is odd, given that his work and life serves as an interesting counterpoint. If Zinn was the archetypal engagé writer-historian-activist, Salinger was his opposite. And for decades I’ve wondered what exactly happened to Salinger to drive him away from publishing and people, from much of an active participation in the world. Clearly he was wounded by the attention he received, and I’ve always wondered exactly what the breaking point was.
I read “The Catcher in the Rye” the average number of times for a young person my age—which is to say, every few years between when I was sixteen and twenty-six or so. When I was about twenty I read the rest of the books and stories, and when I began to teach, about ten years ago, I usually included a Salinger story in every syllabus, usually demonstrating the use of dialogue to illuminate character. His is still my favorite dialogue, the dialogue that rings truest, that’s at once very naturalistic and musical; it’s really remarkable how difficult it is to do what he does between quotation marks.
I like to think that had he continued to write and publish, he would have continued to evolve in bold new ways. The man was an artist, no doubt about it, and his work was always growing in new—darker, stranger, more wonderfully obsessive—directions. And always, no matter where the stories go (or don’t go), his sentences are so beautiful, and so unlike anyone else’s. A few years back, when he backed out of the publishing of “Hapworth,” I wanted so badly to write to him, to say that we’d publish that and anything else he saw fit, and that we’d do it in whatever quiet and respectful way he sought. It’s clear he wasn’t so crazy about the splashy aspects of publishing on a certain scale, and I can identify with that—with the desire to just have the book look like you want it to, on the scale you feel comfortable with. But I don’t think he ever could strike that balance between the public and private worlds of writing and publishing his work.
To me the question of whether or not he continued to write strikes at the heart of the nature of writing itself. If he indeed wrote volumes and volumes about the Glass family, as has been claimed, it would be such a curious thing, given that the nature of written communication is social; language was created to facilitate understanding between people. So writing books upon books without the intention of sharing them with people is a proposition full of contradictory impulses and goals. It’s like a gifted chef cooking incredible meals for forty years and never inviting anyone over to share them.
My own pet theory is that he dabbled with stories for many years, maybe finished a handful, but as the distance from his last published work grew longer, it became more difficult to imagine any one work being the follow-up; the pressure on any story or novel would be too great. And thus the dabbling might have continued, but the likelihood of his finishing something, particularly a novel, became more remote. And so I think we might find fragments of things, much in the way “The Original of Laura” was found. But there’s something about the prospect of actually publishing one’s work that brings that work into focus. That pressure is needed, just like it’s needed to make diamonds from raw carbon.
Of course, the possibility most intriguing—and fictional-sounding—would have Salinger having continued to write for fifty years, finishing hundreds of stories and a handful of novels, all of which are polished and up to his standards and ready to go, and all of which he imagined would be found and published after his death. That, in fact, he intended all along for these works to be read, but that he just couldn’t bear to send them into the world while he lived.
I guess we’ll see.