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february/march 2009

Happy Birthday, J.D. Salinger!

Dear Mr. Salinger,

I'll make this quick.  I bet you don't like hearing from strangers, or even a fan, wanting to wish you many happy returns.  You gotta be sick of those Holden Caulfield wannabes, still trying to track you down.  When everyone knows, you fled fame years ago to live as a recluse in Cornish, N.H.

But on New Year's, you turned 90, and I can't resist saying La Chaim, congrats or it's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" to mark the occasion.

Don't worry: this letter won't be nearly interminable like Buddy Glass' long-winded, yet magnificent missive to his younger brother Zooey. Like all your afficionados, I began reading you in utero, and would love nothing more than to write a sentence, let alone a page, in your inimitable style.  But only a fool (and an idiot, not a "holy fool") would feel capable of writing like you (or your narrator Buddy) in your masterful novella "Franny and Zooey."

Now don't take this the wrong way, but you'll never find me on your doorstep or hiding in your garage or anything.  My adulation is reserved strictly for your work.  From what I read, you're kind of an odd, to put it politely, piece of work, in your life.

Not that you're any different from many artists and writers who I know, including me.  We're all, as my poet friend Anne once observed, "cuckoo."

"Artists are unreliable; whereas death never lets you down," writer Julian Barnes observes in Nothing to Be Frightened Of. While death is always to be counted on, I'd amend Barnes' dictum.  In life, artists are unreliable; but their art doesn't let us down.

"There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again," wrote William Hazlitt, the English essayist who lived from 1778 to 1830.

This is true for so many of us, who have read your books more often than we can remember and re-read them more than we'd like to admit.   Just between us, your fictional characters – Holden, Zooey, Franny, Seymour and other Glass family members – are often more real to me than many real-life people who I run into on the subway, in bars or at  poetry readings.  I don't mean literally real, that I expect to sit next to Holden on the bus or anything like that.

I mean that your characters, like all vibrant artistic creations, have lives off the page – in our hearts, guts and minds.

Along with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, you brought dialog and the portrayal of the inner lives of characters into the modern (and even the post-modern) age.

To put this more crudely, I can't meet a phony without thinking of what Holden would say or take a bath without wondering when Bessie Glass will enter the bathroom, keys or God knows what, rattling in her housecoat pockets, and yak at me endlessly while I'm trying, for Christ's sake, to get out of the tub.   

All of us, no matter how old, grown-up, or wise to the ways of the world, are still, 17-year-old Holden Caulfield, deep within ourselves.

Along with making talking cool, your work, especially, the Glass family stories, makes it hip to engage with spiritual questions.

Some of your mysticism is half-baked (c'mon, isn't there something too sentimental about Seymour's Fat Lady?).  Yet this doesn't detract from the vibrancy of your writing or spirituality. 

Your writing opens the way to, as Rilke says in "Letters to a Young Poet', "living the questions."

"Close on the heels of kindness, originality is one of the most thrilling things in the world, also the most rare," Seymour Glass says in Hapworth 16, 1924, your last published work, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. 

You may be kooky, buddy, but your writing is both kind and original.

That's a rare and wonderful thing.

Happy Birthday!



©2009 Kathi Wolfe
©2009 Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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