The following is my contribution to Letters to J.D. Salinger (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).
Dear J.D. Salinger,
I have searched for clues to your disappearance. When I first read The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey as a teenager, you had already stopped publishing more than three decades before. I figured you were dead. The fictional worlds you painted—your descriptions of youthful angst over society’s falseness and pressure to confirm—were so harsh and tactile to me. I had come of age after a social era meant to vanquish, or at least expose, the hypocrisy of the gray-flannel elite. But you, who as I learned were much alive, missed taking part in even that social upheaval. You know it didn’t really seem to work much anyway.
Still, I can’t help but wonder why, for so many years, you’ve decided to play your music in the closet of your own making, leaving the rest of the world increasingly deaf. Does it have something to do with the fact that the collective American hearing is damaged, even more so today, by the annoying mantra “You’ve got mail” or the opening bells of the New York Stock Exchange. (I don’t know, maybe you’ve invested well all these years. I’ve never read an interview, however, with J.D. Salinger’s broker.)
I know the cacophony of pop culture is wearing. It’s a worldwide disease born here in this country. Even the mumble of the Jesus Prayer would seem to be better background noise for the anguished, cranky existence so many people feel, but have no idea how to describe in words.
Recently, I reread the two books and looked again for answers. As anyone can see, you don’t owe anyone of us anything, especially when the phony bastards have only multiplied in all these decades. (A faculty member I know recently termed the tenor of the Ivory Tower exchange: “elegant pettiness.”)
But I can’t help but mourn anyway. When Holden Caulfield and Franny became depressed for the right reasons—false loves and sanctioned bullies, cocktail party prattling and adults with thick, gray-wool minds—they also come back for the right reasons. Sure, we never knew if they sold out or fashioned their own, truly alternative paths. They selling-out ideas seems doubtful, and we can only hope modern society wouldn’t have swallowed their souls and given their descendants SUVs to drive. And of course, I can, at least, visit them again and again and hear them speak as they still do to me, and as they hopefully will to my own children some day.
In the end, I guess you, like Holden, decided not to ever tell anybody anything again. But, even so, don’t you miss everybody?
Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson