A few weeks before I began my junior year of high school I was in Belgium visiting my grandparents. I stayed in the attic room where I daydreamed about the girl who lived across the street and all the other Belgian women who customarily sunbathed without a bikini top.
I listened to BBC serials on the radio and read French comic books and sometimes opened the door to the storage room that occupied the other half of the attic and went inside and poked around the dusty old furniture and suitcases hunting for treasure. I once found an old copy of Oui magazine (For the Man of the World), an offshoot of Playboy, I think, which led me to believe there was more pornography waiting to be discovered. I was wrong.
I spent mornings there, sleeping late, and afternoons too, after lunch, when my grandparents took their naps. This is where I first read The Catcher in the Rye and I remember the warm sun coming through the skylight onto my bed as I tore through J.D. Salinger’s most famous book. I liked the idea of reading it, though I became impatient at times and skimmed over passages. But it was the right time and place. I got it. When I returned home, I read his three other books and liked Nine Stories best. Franny and Zooey made me feel grown-up (plus, the Glass family lived on the Upper West Side); the last one lost me.
I have not revisited Salinger’s work since, during which time I’ve met as many people who were turned off by him as those who love him. But I got to thinking about him this morning when I read his obit in the Times:
In the fall of 1953 he befriended some local teenagers and allowed one of them to interview him for what he assumed would be an article on the high school page of a local paper, The Claremont Daily Eagle. The article appeared instead as a feature on the editorial page, and Mr. Salinger felt so betrayed that he broke off with the teenagers and built a six-and-a-half-foot fence around his property.
He seldom spoke to the press again, except in 1974 when, trying to fend off the unauthorized publication of his uncollected stories, he told a reporter from The Times: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
And yet the more he sought privacy, the more famous he became, especially after his appearance on the cover of Time in 1961. For years it was a sort of journalistic sport for newspapers and magazines to send reporters to New Hampshire in hopes of a sighting. As a young man Mr. Salinger had a long, melancholy face and deep soulful eyes, but now, in the few photographs that surfaced, he looked gaunt and gray, like someone in an El Greco painting. He spent more time and energy avoiding the world, it was sometimes said, than most people do in embracing it, and his elusiveness only added to the mythology growing up around him.
Depending on one’s point of view, he was either a crackpot or the American Tolstoy, who had turned silence itself into his most eloquent work of art. Some believed he was publishing under an assumed name, and for a while in the late 1970s, William Wharton, author of “Birdy,” was rumored to be Mr. Salinger, writing under another name, until it turned out that William Wharton was instead a pen name for the writer Albert du Aime.
He was an odd bird, no doubt. Gifted writer though.
The Times also has a piece about why The Catcher in the Rye was never made into a movie.