The death of J.D. – otherwise Jerome David – Salinger is sad in its way: the day that any great artistic figure switches off the light of life reminds us that even the mighty are only passing this way for a short time.
But Salinger had reached a towering age – 91, to be precise – and had spent most of his last six decades reclusively hidden away, obsessively avoiding the glare of interest that his books – certainly his debut novel, The Catcher in the Rye – generated and, in the main, managing to remain a hidden, barely-known personality.
In an era when national or international publicity frequently accompanies the rise of nobodies with no identifiable talent, it seems almost other-worldly that a man who wanted to share his craft and his ideas – at least on paper – should so want to shun the attention of critics, journalists, photographers, biographers, academics and certainly fans.
In fact, such privacy is a relic of another age. You could not seek publication today without some commitment to helping with the promotion of a new title. It would be unthinkable to assume that a text had genuine – or at least potential – value without the willingness of a would-be writer to at least accede to Oprah’s – or Richard and Judy’s, to be more parochial – cooings.
I know there are those who have turned down that huge US show but, along the way, that behaviour has generated its own up-profiling stream: ‘The man or woman who said “no” to Winfrey’, a headline-seizing story in its own curious right. Doubt that Salinger ever thought literature would come to this.
But I do actually resent the writer’s isolationism: humans are social animals who want to converse and debate and chatter and exchange ideas. Why should this individual deny the world some answers to questions – not invasive or scurrilous or voyeuristic questions, but ones that would genuinely interrogate the writer about his art and his talent, his creative approach and attitudes.
I also resent him, perhaps in a quite irrational way, for what his most notorious reader of all did. When Mark Chapman gunned down John Lennon outside the Dakota Hotel in Manhattan in December 1980, he carried with him not only a venomous desire to murder our greatest rock legend but also a copy of Salinger’s most widely-known work.
Had Chapman seen, in the adolescent grievances of the book’s central character Holden Caulfield, a model? Had Chapman cultivated bitterness of such a poisonous kind based on seeds sown by the alienated and isolated literary protagonist whom Salinger launched on the world in 1951.
This may be a thought without plausible justification but I sort of feel that if Salinger hadn’t been such a determined and misanthropic hideaway then, somehow, Chapman might also not have become a gun-toting madman on that terrible night.
Maybe, just maybe, if Salinger had been more open, more forthcoming, had discussed the motivations behind Caulfield, explained the notions behind his fiction to a broader forum, perhaps if he had shared some of his analysis and intelligence instead of shielding himself away for all that time, possibly the disturbed Chapman would have understood the book – and life, too – just that fraction better and his criminal intent would not have expressed itself in that horrifically wasteful manner those 30 years ago.