Thursday, January 28, 2010

Goodbye To All That

By Lars Trodson
J.D. Salinger may have been the last post-war American writer left on the scene. Mailer is dead; Schulberg died last year. Styron is gone. Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams -- gone, gone, gone. The roadside juke joint is closing and the last cigarette has been extinguished. You better drink down that rye, boy, and hit the road. Fast.
The soldier’s uniform, the one left over from The War, stopped fitting long ago, but it was kept in the closet for memory’s sake. But it may just be that no one wants it any more. We’ve got our own war to fight, don’t you know, and sentimentality is getting harder and harder to come by. We’re so connected today that we don’t get a chance to miss those people we knew a long time ago, even if we never liked them and never even talked about them. Can you believe that so-and-so friended you on Facebook?
Gatsby, who turned out all right in the end, had his garden defaced by a mild epithet after he had died, and Holden Caulfield, who admired old Gatsby, the old sport, was offended by the epithet he found at the Museum of Modern Art. Neither word would offend anybody today, and so the most famous literary figure from the post-World War I era and the most famous literary figure from the post-World War II era -- linked by some petty scribble on a wall -- are sinking under our self-imposed 15 minute rule.

And so it goes. Feeling bad about the death of a 91-year old man who created works of art that are still read two generations after they were created -- and who also seemed to have lived the kind of life he wanted, despite the pain it may have caused -- is not much cause for lament. I never met Salinger, and never had any desire to drive up to Cornish, NH -- not far from where I live -- to steal his underwear. What would I do? Get a glimpse of him and then gather everybody around and say, “You’ll never guess who's briefs are these?” I couldn’t dine out on that anecdote for very long. And besides, it’s sick.
What mattered to me was the work -- in the same way that my own work matters to me. Hemingway, God bless him, was the one who paved the way and would say, no matter what demon you faced or how many drinks you had, that work was the only thing that mattered. Salinger was a lovely, beautiful writer. He created characters, and he detailed life in front of the radio. I liked the world he wrote about, and I probably liked that world because he rendered it so movingly. I like going back to it when I can. He is distinctly American, and I love that, and he writes dialogue the way I hear people speak and he always -- always -- put exactly the right word in italics.
Old Holden, though, soon enough -- soon, I suspect -- will be perceived to be about as relevant as an elevator operator or a cigarette girl. Which is too bad, because I love the idea of both, and I, truth be told, adore Holden. As I do Seymour, and Franny and Zooey, and Phoebe, and almost always most specially do I love Allie, Holden’s brother Allie, who had someone to speak for him even after he died, which is the greatest thing. I remember these people, and I guess it says something that their creator never got in their way. 

So I thank J.D. Salinger for taking the time to sit down in front of the typewriter and working through words and sentences and paragraphs to come up with a work of art that he thought people would like. It seems quaint, this idea that hard work and craft and training would be the path to fame and fortune. Once you had to refine your craft at the little cabin on 9W in Nyack so that you could learn how to sing. But that mic was shut off long ago. The old letters are crumbling, the sheet music is unintelligible. Those books that Uncle Harry left in the attic can’t even be sold at the yard sale.

It’s too bad about America sometimes. We can’t stand anything old unless we can sell it for money. 
Or, as Snooki would say, “Holden-fucking-who?”