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Book Review: Salinger: The Classic Critical and Personal Portrait edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald

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Harper Perennial has reissued Salinger: The Classic Critical and Personal Portrait, just after the death of J.D. Salinger. Oddly, though, Salinger was missed as much while living as he is now, dead at age 91. His last published work was in 1965, and he was rarely in the public eye. Until then, besides his famous character portraits in Catcher in the Rye, he wrote for the New Yorker, and created some wonderful story collections.

The re-release of Salinger gives us time to reflect on his works after half a century, through essays by 20 writers puzzling over the author's reclusive life. So idolized was Salinger for his Catcher in the Rye, and Franny & Zooey, that criticism of his work was often stifled. At one time, a popular magazine dropped some critical material on the basis that “anything appearing in print about Salinger slows him down weeks and even months.” His fans and friends even helped protect him from publicity.

The significance of Salinger’s works are evaluated by his peers in Salinger, as well as his personal mystique and linguistic significance. Salinger is also a great opportunity to visit with these writers: Updike, Didion and many others, whose critical views, both good and bad, give us greater appreciation for the late Salinger’s work.

Much of his character development seems to come from his own introspective personality, as "a sensitive person, obsessed with words and hating what seems phony.” Yet characters drawn from his imagination could hardly reveal his full character.

In  an author statement in a 1949 Harpers: "I've been writing seriously for over ten years. Being modest almost to a fault, I won’t say I’m a born writer, but I’m certainly a born professional. I don’t think I ever selected writing as a career. I just started to write when I was eighteen or so and never stopped."

Perhaps contributor David Stevenson solves the mystery when he writes: “He is not a proper man of letters who occasionally publishes a short story or a novel. He is that rare thing among contemporary writers who take their craft seriously, a complete professional."

Referring to excessive verbosity in Franny & Zooey, John Updike says: “Few writers since Joyce would risk such a wealth of words upon events that are purely internal and deeds that are purely talk….Salinger’s conviction that our inner lives greatly matter peculiarly qualifies him to sing of an America where, for most of us, there seems little to do but feel. Salinger’s intense attention to gesture and intonation help make him, among the contemporaries, a uniquely pertinent literary artist. As Hemingway sought the words for things in motion, Salinger seeks the words for things transmuted into human subjectivity."

Among the many who disapprove of Salinger, perhaps due to the amount of attention paid to him rather than his storytelling skill, Joan Didion also reflects on this unusual writer:

“Among the reasonably literate young and young at heart, he is surely the most read and reread writer in America today, exerting a power over his readers which is in some ways extraliterary. Those readers expect him to teach them something, something that has nothing at all to do with fiction.”

Didion also refers to “Salinger’s tendency to flatter the essential triviality within each of his readers, his predilection for giving instructions for living.”

Contributors to this Salinger re-issue also include Alfred Kazin and Edgar Branch, who offers a comparison between Salinger and Mark Twain.

Resources in the book include a study of the language of Catcher in the Rye, back in the day when sonuvabitch was a term reserved only for Holden Caulfield’s deepest anger.

Salinger: The Classic Critical and Personal Portrait was originally edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald, formerly editor of Time Magazine and editor in chief of Time Inc. Except where noted, quotes are attributed to the Time editor.

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