J.D. Salinger (1948-1965)

How do you mourn a writer who died this week, but, for all intents and purposes, died 45 years ago?

She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.

          - A Perfect Day for Bananafish
This second paragraph, from J.D. Salinger's first and finest published story, may be the most succinct statement he ever made on his own career. He was a writer who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. To him, the enormous fame he achieved was an irritating by-product of his work and he resented it.

Although he lived to be 91, his exposed life, was quite brief: 17 years, from 1948 (with the publication of the short story quoted above in The New Yorker,) to 1965, when The New Yorker devoted almost its entire issue to a 25,000 word short story, "Hapworth 16, 1924."

It is difficult for those of us who enjoy books and literature to understand why an author would be repulsed by the attention his work receives. Salinger went so far as to insist his agent burn his fan mail.

There is a presumed contract between people who create art and the public that consumes it that there is some sort of quid pro quo going on. There is an expectation that the creator of the art owes us something more than their art; that there's a wink-wink which we think entitles us to a certain amount of voyeurism. Voyeurs, alas, are people who have neatly worked it out for themselves that somehow such contracts only require their own signature.

Salinger's decision to retreat behind a cloak of almost total privacy seems quite prescient. We now live in a world that is filled with people who cannot agree to sign that other half of the contract fast enough, a world of celebrities who seem to be famous merely for their public lives. (Three words: Kate Gosselin's hairdo. One word: Brangelina.)

In "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," the central character of the story, Seymour Glass, is ascending a hotel elevator dressed in a robe and sandals, having just returned from the pool. A woman gets on the elevator.

"I see you're looking at my feet," he said to her when the car was in motion.

"I beg your pardon?" said the woman.

"I said I see you're looking at my feet."

"I beg your pardon. I happened to be looking at the floor."

"If you want to look at my feet, say so," said the young man. "But don't be a God-damned sneak about it."

"Let me out here, please," the woman said quickly to the girl operating the car.

The car doors opened and the woman got out without looking back.

"I have two normal feet and I can't see the slightest God damned reason why anybody should stare at them," said the young man.
And thus, a posthumous lesson in privacy. J.D. Salinger's life was about his words and his work. It was never about his feet. And let's quit being such God-damned sneaks about it.