American Artists Obits Writers and Writing

J. D. Salinger: January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010


The work of J.D. Salinger has mattered enormously to a large number of people.
(If you are one of those people, I’d love to know how and why he has mattered to you.)

Last fall, when The Catcher in the Rye came up in the course of a discussion in my UC Irvine workshop, I was able to observe that newer generations were also not at all immune to Salinger’s magic.

Speaking personally, there aren’t a whole lot of books that have changed my life. Maybe one has to be at a certain, young-ish age for that alchemy to take place, I don’t know.

I am a maniacal reader of many kinds of texts and the list of books I love is long. However, the list of books that permanently shifted me on my emotional/spiritual/intellectual axis is very short, which is likely as it should be. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is one of the volumes on my very short list.

The cumulative effect of the book is what made the difference,
but there is one passage that particularly did the trick:

“I remember about the fifth time I ever went on ‘Wise Child.’ I subbed for Walt a few times when he was in a cast–remember when he was in that cast? Anyway, I started bitching one night before the broadcast. Seymour’d told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door with Waker. I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again–all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember. I don’t think I missed more than just a couple of times. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and–I don’t know. Anyway, it seemed goddam clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense”

Franny was standing. She had taken her hand away from her face to hold the phone with two hands. “He told me, too,” she said into the phone. “He told me to be funny for the Fat Lady, once.” She released one hand from the phone and placed it, very briefly, on the crown of her head, then went back to holding the phone with both hands. “I didn’t ever picture her on a porch, but with very–you know–very thick legs, very veiny. I had her in an awful wicker chair. She had cancer, too, though, and she had the radio going full-blast all day! Mine did, too!”

“Yes. Yes. Yes. All right. Let me tell you something now, buddy. . . . Are you listening?”

Franny, looking extremely tense, nodded.

“I don’t care where an actor acts. It can be in summer stock, it can be over a radio, it can be over television, it can be in a goddam Broadway theatre, complete with the most fashionable, most well-fed, most sunburned-looking audience you can imagine. But I’ll tell you a terrible secret–Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know–listen to me, now–don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

For joy, apparently, it was all Franny could do to hold the phone, even with both hands.

Apart from Franny & Zooey, there are many passages from Salinger’s work that, for one reason or another, are engraved permanently on my soul and psyche. Among them are the following:

from Seymour, An Introduction

“…I have scars on my hands from touching certain people… Certain heads, certain colours and textures of human hair leave permanent marks on me. Other things, too. Charlotte once ran away from me, outside the studio, and I grabbed her dress to stop her, to keep her near me. A yellow cotton dress I loved because it was too long for her. I still have a lemon-yellow mark on the palm of my right hand. Oh, God, if I’m anything by a clinical name, I’m kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy….”

from Teddy, first published in The New Yorker, January 31, 1953

“I was six when I saw that everything was God, and my hair stood up, and all that,” Teddy said. “It was on a Sunday, I remember. 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.”

from Franny and Zooey

“I keep a good neurotic’s calendar, and it’s three years, to the day, since Seymour killed himself. Did I ever tell you what happened when I went down to Florida to bring back the body? I wept like a slob on the plane for five solid hours. Carefully adjusting my veil from time to time so that no one across the aisle could see me–I had a seat to myself, thank God. About five minutes before the plane landed, I became aware of people talking in the seat behind me. A woman was saying, with all of Back Bay Boston and most of Harvard Square in her voice, “. . . and the next morning, mind you, they took a pint of pus out of that lovely young body of hers.” That’s all I remember hearing, but when I got off the plane a few minutes later and the Bereaved Widow came toward me all in Bergdorf Goodman black, I had the Wrong Expression on my face. I was grinning. Which is exactly the way I feel today, for no really good reason. Against my better judgment, I feel certain that somewhere very near here–the first house down the road, maybe–there’s a good poet dying, but also somewhere very near here somebody’s having a hilarious pint of pus taken from her lovely young body, and I can’t be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight.”

from The Catcher in the Rye

People always clap for the wrong things.

from The Catcher in the Rye

Mothers are all slightly insane.

What about you? If you are a Salinger fan, why did his work matter to you?


  • Catcher in the Rye was required reading in my Lit class back in high school. I imagine that was dropped after John Lennon got shot. Also there was another off-the-hook maniac infatuatee with Salinger’s few works. Who was it? Anyone? Anyone? The guy (J.D.) was a true recluse, right?

    I liked My Name is Aram – Oh that was Wm. Saroyan! Good down to earth stuff. Good Fresno Armenian stuff.

  • I am so glad I’m old enough that Salinger wasn’t required reading. That would have ruined it for me – it was still a bit subversive when I went through his stuff. (I did have to read Moby Dick as a lit requirement, for which I’m grateful.)

  • Mark David Chapman’s shooting of John Lennon, John Hinckley, Jr.’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, and Robert John Bardo’s shooting of Rebecca Schaeffer have been associated with the novel. Also Pierre Emil George Salinger

  • Catcher in the Rye has 2,865 Amazon comments and Going Rogue has only 1084 Amazon comments. Win – Salinger !!!

    (Unfortunately Moby Dick only has 345 – perhaps the country actually deserves to go down the tubes under GOPer supervision. 33 of the 345 are “one star” – although one of the one-stars is an objection to Burt Reynold’s reading of the audio version.)

  • Also, RIP Howard Zinn. I didn’t always agree with his politics, but he brought a spirit and passion to the history profession that was needed to give the full context. If he oversimplified, he also brought necessary correctives to “top-down” historical narratives that had dominated the “mainstream.”

  • Also, Zinn served as a bombadier in WWII over Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. He came by his pacifism “honestly” and knew more of war first-hand than Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and George W. Bush put together.

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