Category Archives: J.D. Salinger

Links: Through the Cradle of the Civil War

Graceland versus Rowan Oak.

I read Alex Shakar‘s debut novel, The Savage Girl, in 2003, but I have no strong memories of it. (I had to consult I note I scribbled in an endpaper to remember when I read it.) Regardless, he spins a great yarn about how the best-laid promotional plans for the novel collapsed.

Edwidge Danticat on editing the story collection Haiti Noir: “We don’t always have to create pretty pictures around Haiti, but we are obligated to reflect or create fully realized human beings and that’s what our seventeen fiction writers did. I am really proud of that book. It’s not a rosy picture of Haiti, but it is nuanced and complex one. We are neither angels nor savages. Maybe that’s what fiction does best, define that middle ground.”

“While a full account of the role God plays in [David Foster] Wallace’s writing would probably take a monograph to flesh out, I’d like to point to a few moments in his work that one should pursue if one were to write that monograph.” (Chapter 22 of The Pale King welling up again; seriously, it should be sold as a Byliner-ish excerpt, or novella, or some other standalone publication.)

Jim Shepard talks up some of his favorite short-story collections, and his own work: “[W]riting about other things, if you’re doing so in the right way, is a great way of tricking yourself into writing about stuff you most care about. It can be a back door into difficult emotions. Especially if you’re a guy, you might have difficulty dealing with particularly vexed emotions to begin with. And particularly vexed emotions are the sort that power literature.” (via)

Harvard University Press has freed up the Ernest Hemingway chapter from A New Literary History of America, which discusses the influence of a family cabin in Michigan on his work.

Mad Men, John Updike‘s Maple stories, same diff.

Reader’s Almanac, the Library of America’s blog, recently turned a year old; it tallies up some of its most popular posts.

J.D. Salinger
, 1994: “I work on. Same old hours, pretty much.”

Roger Ebert is in a huff about an ESL version of The Great Gatsby; Jessa Crispin doesn’t see what the fuss is about.

Dinaw Mengestu goes to the Greek isle of Patmos and finds a waystation for migrants.

On Louisa May Alcott‘s brief stint as a Civil War nurse.

How Vladimir Nabokov stage-managed his interviews.

In defense of Jonathan Franzen‘s underappreciated second novel, Strong Motion.

“[Larry McMurtry] described The Last Picture Show as a ‘spiteful’ book that took three weeks to write and was intended to ‘lance some of the poisons of small-town life.’”

Arthur Phillips on Moby-Dick: “When we…went out to sea, it was something in between a realistic sea adventure and some other dreamlike lunacy – then I felt like I was in the hands of somebody who was inventing the novel as he wrote one. That same wonderful feeling. This is not exactly a sea adventure or a sea melodrama with an evil captain. There’s something much weirder going on.” (Nathaniel Philbrick‘s forthcoming Why Read Moby-Dick? has some thoughtful observations on these points, about which more soon, probably.)

Some elements by which to judge the success of an expat novel.

Legislators are trying to make a Mark Twain commemorative coin happen. No word on whether it’ll be embossed with the phrase, “Within certain judicious limitations we trust in God.”

J.D. Salinger’s Failure

At the Economist‘s culture blog, Prospero, Will Wilkinson takes a look at the legal wrangling between J.D. Salinger and Fredrik Colting, author of the Catcher in the Rye parody/satire/tribute/commentary 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye. In the months before his death in January 2010, Salinger vigorously protested the book’s existence, and the case has only just now ended: According to the settlement reached last week, the book cannot be published or sold in the United States and Canada. Wilkinson’s take on the squabble is that it reveals Salinger as more than merely a cranky misanthrope. No, his distaste for other writers getting into his business made him the “preeminent enemy of open culture in American letters,” while his habit of blowing a gasket whenever somebody made an attempt to comment on him and his work for profit revealed a “contemptible failure of generosity.”

It wasn’t that Salinger lacked generosity but that his generosity was, let’s say, unusually focused. I say this after reading Kenneth Slawenski‘s new biography, Salinger: A Life (published overseas last year with the godawful title J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High). The folk legend about Salinger’s seclusion is that it was a sudden break from the public—his public life essentially ended with the publication of his meandering story “Hapworth 16, 1924″ in the New Yorker in 1965. But his split with society at large was a long time coming, and one of the pleasures of Slawenski’s book is how well he lays out the causes for his self-imposed seclusion without overstating the eccentricity of his actions. After all, he was a crank even when he was actively publishing: From the very start of his writing career he was fussy over his words and outraged to see his work manhandled without his permission in the pages of slicks like Collier’s or high-end journals like Story. By the time he was writing for the New Yorker he had sidestepped the usual processes of the fiction department and was working directly with editor William Shawn. Combine that hyperpossesiveness over his words with what Slawenski reasonably speculates was a traumatic experience during the D-Day invasion, plus a growing interest in Eastern spirituality, and you have a recipe for a man who felt stalked by phoniness wherever he went.

Salinger cared little about copyright per se, and he was no enemy of “open culture” in general—he just didn’t want it applied to his own work. What he was passionate about was ensuring his vision of the Glass family would not be tarnished, diminished—and, if the rumors of unpublished novels are true, read—by the outside world. “Salinger did not deliberately choose to withdraw from the world,” Slawenski writes. “His isolation was an insidious progression that slowly enveloped him.” It is a sad story to be sure, but not totally beyond reason. Clearly he loved his invented Glass family too much. By the time his last published book, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour—an Introduction, came out in 1963, Salinger’s interest in writing about the family seemed to be more important than his interest in making compelling fiction about it, and critics had lost patience with the precocious, mordant clan. Slawenski lays out the frustrated response:

[Critics] called for an end to the series in no uncertain terms. The New York Times Book Review accused Salinger of the “self-indulgence of a writer flirting with the depths of wisdom, yet coy and embarrassed in his advances.” But it was Time magazine that boldly revealed the underlying exasperation that many critics felt but were reluctant to divulge. “The grown reader,” Time quipped sarcastically, “is beginning to wonder whether the sphinxlike Seymour had a secret worth sharing. And if so, when Salinger is going to reveal it.”

Slawenski is more fascinated with learning how Salinger wound up in this literary cul-de-sac than dredging up details Salinger’s infamous years of seclusion—a strategy that’s bound to disappoint reviewers hoping for a dishier book. But how much needs to be said about those years? He was a successful writer whose stories became increasingly navel-gazing and who couldn’t abide even the very long leash the New Yorker kept him on. He hid; he wrote; he lawyered up whenever anybody got too close to his creations; he died. Whatever manuscripts are left behind are likely to be just as rambling and insular as “Hapworth.” This is a “contemptible” existence only if you feel an artist is obligated to be happy whenever somebody subjects his or her work to remixing. In Slawenski’s reckoning, Salinger’s life was mostly just lonely—and pitiable for that, because so much of that loneliness was self-inflicted. In 1961 and 1962 Salinger corresponded with a pre-Esquire Gordon Lish, who solicited the writer to contribute an essay as part of a federal program intended to motivate youth. Slawenski describes the exchange:

“You only want me to participate in this because I’m famous,” he charged. “No, no, no,” Lish protested, “it’s because you know how to speak to children.” Salinger paused and then made a startling confession. “No. I can’t,” he said. “I can’t even speak to my own children.”

Links: Epic Fail

“There is no epic literature without a lyrical element. But that has completely disappeared from American literature.” (Exercise: Define “epic.” Also, define “lyrical.”)

D.G. Myers prefers Charles Willeford‘s “Oh, shit, here we go again!” to Kurt Vonnegut‘s “And so it goes.”

When I go off on one of my jags about D.C. novels, somebody will occasionally mention Andrew Holleran‘s 2004 novel, Grief. (One friend recently mentioned loving it but finding it impossible to finish because it was so profoundly sad—perhaps the most peculiar but intriguing bit of praise I’ve heard about a book.) Mary Pacifico Curtis makes a compelling case for it.

A 1906 letter from Upton Sinclair to president Theodore Roosevelt, written shortly after The Jungle was published.

Amy Hempel: “I do so much revision in my head before I write something down that I probably do less actual revision than many other writers.” (via)

Wealthy folks are heading to Montana to try their hand at being horsemen, much to the chagrin of Thomas McGuane.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s rare for me to ask for others’ opinions—I don’t have that kind of personality, though I am a writing instructor myself. I would not feel comfortable asking another person to read my work and spend time thinking about it in a potentially helpful way.”

Arthur Phillips is having fun being poker-faced about his next book, which appears to be a Pale Fire-ish faux critical commentary on a Shakespeare play about King Arthur.

In the Guardian, a dozen writers weigh in on each month of the year. Lionel Shriver notes that “February is for ­curmudgeons, whinge-bags and misanthropes.”

Matthew Hunte compares the 1999 and 2010 classes of New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40″ writers, and notes how the first group’s “heirs to a tradition of formal experimentation and hyper-intellectualism” gave way to one whose thematic preoccupation is “escape, whether it is from a stifling relationship, a plantation, a collapsing country or merely from responsibility.”

Fredrik Colting‘s riff on The Catcher in the Rye is officially barred from publication in the United States.

I initially figured that Amber Sparksconcern about the lack of working-class American fiction was a bit of an overreaction. But then I saw that at least one New York Times headline writer noted that Louis Auchincloss wrote about WASPs “people who mattered.” To the barricades!

Links: Generosity

Gary Shteyngart: “Nobody wants to read a book but everybody wants to write one. Reading requires an act of empathy, really. What you’re doing when you’re reading a book is saying, I’m going to turn off who I am for a little bit, and I’m going to enter the personality of another human being. Reading is a very generous act, but it’s a very helpful act if you really want to understand what another person is like.”

On making a film version of Winesburg, Ohio with a contemporary setting and all-black cast.

D.G. Myers deems Kurt Vonnegut unfit for the Library of America, largely because of his “sentimental moralism.” I read and enjoyed most of Vonnegut’s books in high school but haven’t revisited them—maybe sentimental moralism means more when you’re a kid. Same probably goes for J.D. Salinger. But it’s still hard to for me to dismiss Vonnegut as easily as Myers does, because Vonnegut had such a strong influence on other writers—Rick Moody and Jonathan Safran Foer most prominently. Neither makes my short list of great living American writers, but that’s just me—the point is that Vonnegut still insinuates himself into fiction in ways that, say, Salinger, never does now. Which is at least one justification for including Vonnegut among the country’s “most significant writing.”

Speaking of: In 2006 Vonnegut went on Second Life to do an interview, which was recently unearthed at Mobylives.

Also speaking of: An online repository of academic research on J.D. Salinger.

And, speaking of some more: The Library of America’s own blog on how Willa Cather has been dismissed as too readable and/or too reactionary.

“The death of God therefore, in Melville’s inspiring picture, leads not to a culture overtaken by meaninglessness but to a culture directed by a rich sense for many new possible and incommensurate meanings.”

Levi Asher gathers up some news items as proof of Beat culture’s continuing endurance, including a new John Clellon Holmes biography and a film version of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Kyle Minor‘s suggested reading list for a spring fiction workshop would fill a couple of bookshelves and crush the soul of a young MFA student. But it’s an interesting (mostly) anti-canonical longlist of (mostly) contemporary literature. (On a related note, HTMLGiant’s Blake Butler recently answered a few questions of mine about the site for the National Book Critics Circle “Conversations With Literary Websites” series.)

Jonathan Franzen aces a quiz on birds.

Ernest Hemingway‘s life as told through his guns.

Andrew Ervin (whose debut novel, Extraordinary Renditions, I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) talks about working on the book, and why he’s careful about what he reads when he’s writing.

Binky Urban and Karl Marlantes get big prizes; Mr. Peanut author Adam Ross gets a smaller one, but at least has a good strategy for spending it.

“Sophie’s Choice”: a useful shorthand for “heartbreaking decision,” which is to say it doesn’t apply to figuring out what to cook over the holidays. (via)

Links: Research and Development

Nicholas Carr unearths a 1984 essay by Thomas Pynchon from the New York Times Book Review about the virtues of being a luddite. “If our world survives,” writes Pynchon, “the next great challenge to watch out for will come—you heard it here first—when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long.”

Coincidentally, a recent Pynchon symposium at Swarthmore discussed the author and his feelings about the Web: “Later, Pynchon became more paranoid about the connectedness of the Internet, even going so far as comparing it to peering into others’ lives when they are not expecting it.”

So, then, how well does literature adapt to changing technology?

Walking through Holden Caulfield’s New York.

“Recent Jewish fiction has hit on the ability to describe exactly what it feels like to be that mythic creature: a modern American.”

Angela Jackson discusses her debut novel, Where I Must Go, which is about a young black student at an overwhelmingly white, Northwestern-ish university in the late 60s.

Greil Marcus discusses criticism as “the individual’s desire to get it right, to say exactly what he or she means, to capture the feeling that impelled you to write about this particular thing in the first place and not betray it. To live up to the song, the movie, the political speech, the horrendous disaster on the other side of the world or next door.”

Did Mark Twain ever camp on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe? Why did the effort to save his home in New York City fall apart? How did his work become so influential around the world?

Toni Morrison‘s Song of Solomon has been pulled from a classroom again by an outraged school-board member.

[Victor] LaValle was asked if he’d drawn from any myths or legends in developing his literary style and he mentioned how he had read the Bible all the way through—a volume, he said, drawn from so many previous ancient sources that if functions like an anthology.”

At a recent panel, London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers “praised blogs as being more relevant than newspapers because of their brevity and the diversity of opinions,” according to a New York Press report. “This point was undercut by her own admission that the only blog she reads regularly is the one written by The London Review of Books.”

On a somewhat related note, I’ve started a series at Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, in which I toss a few questions to people who run literary Web sites (i.e. sites that have a strong focus on books and run reviews from a variety of contributors). The first Q&A, with the Rumpus, is up now; a second is in the can and will be online soon. I love to hear your recommendations of sites that ought to be featured, either in the comments or via e-mail.

Links: Stay on Target

Sven Birkerts makes a lovely statement in the American Scholar about why he reads novels: “I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This reading, more than anything else I do, parallels—and thereby tunes up, accentuates—my own inner life, which is ever associative, a shuttling between observation, memory, reflection, emotional recognition, and so forth. A good novel puts all these elements into play in its own unique fashion.” Unfortunately, that statement is swaddled in much keening about how the Internet has destroyed our powers of concentration, with little evidence of whether that’s actually the case. He concludes: “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for.” I’m as susceptible as anyone to online distractions, but isn’t concentration something we’ve always fought for?

Hilary Spurling‘s new Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth, is an interesting biography, even if, like me, you were raised with the notion that Buck wasn’t truly Nobel timber. The book speeds through her later, potboiling years, and Spurling tells the Guardian why: “[W]hat we need now is a shorter, tighter, more sharply focused form, that concentrates on inner meaning rather than its outer chronological and documentary casing.”

Willy Vlautin, author of two admirably spare road-trip novels, The Motel Life and Northline, on his inspirations: “I drive around and listen to ‘Ironweed’ on tape and listen to Tom Waits all day.”

Ruth Franklin takes a close look at the J.D. Salinger letters currently on display at the Morgan Library in New York City.

There’s a Mark Twain impersonator in Hannibal, Missouri, who doesn’t know a whole heck of a lot about Mark Twain.

Chasing Beat writers’ history in Mexico City.

Deborah Eisenberg: “One of the amazing things about writing fiction is that you do get to be other people.”

The Chicago Sun-Times asked me to participate in a poll of sorts on which authors belong in the first class of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Ernest Hemingway didn’t get my vote, but I wasn’t alone in thinking Papa doesn’t count as a Chicago author.

Belle Boggs‘ forthcoming story collection, Mattaponi Queen, was a random pull from my to-be-read pile, an activity that usually doesn’t end well. Happily, this time it worked out: Boggs’ stories, mostly set in southern Virginia, are grim, funny, plainspoken, and are unusually attentive to race and class conflicts. Her short story about man pursuing a sex change, “Jonas,” ran a week back at Five Chapters. Her “Imperial Chrysanthemum,” an even better story, is in the latest issue of the Paris Review.

Displeased with a negative review of the new Yann Martel book, a couple of booksellers take to the Huffington Post to complain. “I think part of the issue is that most newspaper critics try to judge books according to their own personal taste,” they write, then proceed to defend the book based on their own personal tastes.

Links: The Secret History

At Jewish Ideas Daily, D.G. Myers—who from where I sit sets the standard for rigorous, thoughtful, and provocative litblogging—is in the midst of an ambitious study of landmarks in American Jewish literature, with a focus on lesser-known works. His second essay in the series looks at Ezra Brudno‘s 1904 novel, The Fugitive.

Thomas Doherty‘s excellent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Death of Film Criticism,” is worth reading on its own terms, but there are plenty of obvious parallels to be drawn from it book criticism and arts journalism in general. If there’s anything to be learned, it’s that plugging your ears and pretending the Internet doesn’t exist won’t help. Plenty of critics embrace it, of course, and a few just might make a buck off it.

Mary Gaitskill wasn’t a fan of the cover of her 1997 story collection, Because They Wanted To, which featured a large screw. “I threw a fit, I tried to get them not to do it, but they gave me even worse covers—pictures of cannibalistic-looking women stripping the clothes off of a screaming man, or a girl in a wet dress leaning over with her hands on her butt.” The paperback cover seems reasonable enough.

Some literary passings get more attention, but few have inspired the range of thoughtful and affecting remembrances the way Barry Hannah‘s death has. A.N. Deverspiece evokes the shock of learning about his death. HTMLGiant gathers a few thoughts from admirers. Justin Taylor recalls Hannah’s influence. Nathan Deuel offers a contrary view. Wells Tower‘s 2008 profile includes the Hannah story “Water Liars.”

Tower, by the way, didn’t wind up winning the Story Prize this week. But Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a fine choice.

Lionel Shriver
talks with the Wall Street Journal about her new novel, So Much for That: “I don’t assume any sentence is good just because I wrote it.”

An American in Tangier, a 1993 documentary on Paul Bowles, is available on the incomparable cultural archive UbuWeb.

A guide to the J.D. Salinger letters now on display at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Paul Theroux isn’t impressed with John Edwards‘ charitable efforts in Haiti.

Lots of folks get suckered into Ayn Rand‘s philosophy as teenagers. Count George Saunders among them.

Missouri legislators are planning to rename a stretch of highway in Saint Louis after Mark Twain, having decided that Mark McGwire doesn’t deserve the honor. A radio station doesn’t think Twain deserves it either, so a petition is making the rounds. Hall of Fame Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith seems to be getting most of the votes, though I’d feel skittish driving on a highway named after somebody known for backflips.

Kids’ Stuff

Writing in Forbes, Trevor Butterworth parses the responses to the deaths of J.D. Salinger, Howard Zinn, and Louis Auchincloss and concludes that America is a nation obsessed with adolescence—or, more precisely, obsessed with skewering “phoniness” the way adolescents do. Zinn’s and Salinger’s dismissals of mainstream groupthink, he writes were:

…like adolescence, a state of illusion. What is the upshot of exposing fakery except the belief that a morally unassailable authenticity is possible? What is Zinn’s account of an evil ruling class and an honest, oppressed people other than adolescent historiography—a point driven home with an excruciating lack of self-awareness in the movie Good Will Hunting, when Matt Damon tells his shrink, played by Robin Williams, that A People’s History will “knock you on your ass”?

You might be knocked on your ass, but to what end? What was there to believe in when marriage and family, society and country, and liberty and equality were all revealed to be messy constructs and not the simple renderings of childhood? Why even risk disillusionment when adolescence, and the guilt-free role of minor inquisitor, can be maintained as a cultural ideal?

Fair enough—nobody wants to be constantly surrounded by the person who’s poking you in the chest and telling you It’s all a big scam and You’re all a bunch of sheep, and I suppose that both Zinn and Salinger at times evoked (even created) that person. Still, that doesn’t mean that challenging authority, in fiction or otherwise, is always an adolescent act—or that writing about boardrooms, law firms, and prep schools, as Auchincloss did, might be a more noble goal.

If Auchincloss (who I haven’t read) successfully considered weighty matters of philosophy and financial corruption, as Butterworth argues, more power to him. But to say he’s a more valuable author for that is to get behind a dubious argument that some subjects are more important than others—that novels about money mean more than novels about childhood, in the same way that journalism about lawyers means more than journalism about education. It’s an argument that fiction’s job is somehow to do something—change the world, rally the citizenry—when fiction’s job, best as I can tell, is to be good fiction. If people turned Holden Caulfield’s story into a manual for living, that’s not Salinger’s fault—or somehow Auchincloss’ problem to fix.

Links: If You Really Want to Hear About It

Even if it means I’m forced to change the name of this blog, I have no insights to offer regarding the news that J.D. Salinger has died. Scanning my shelves for copies of his books, I discovered something that may be true for you as well. The books aren’t with me; they’re probably tucked in the shelves of the basement of my parents’ house. Salinger was something that meant a lot to me as a teenager, but I didn’t carry him with me into adulthood, and I can no more articulate his literary worth than I can explain my tween affection for The A-Team and Oran “Juice” Jones. Scanning through the short-story archives that the New Yorker has placed online did jog a few memories, though—”For Esme—With Love and Squalor,” for instance, is a reminder of how far a writer can get by making cynicism and precocity collide.

“Oh my, here am I relegated to a classroom“: What happened when you told Salinger how much you enjoyed teaching his work to high-schoolers.

Before his death, the closest thing to a new Salinger book was an effort to put his final short story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” between hard covers. The publisher is now free to explain why the plan fell apart.

The classist in me always found the WASP-y focus of Louis Auchincloss‘ work deeply unappealing, but Terry Teachout argues for the brilliance of the late author’s 1964 novel, The Rector of Justin.

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archives of Andre Dubus.

Investigating Philip K. Dick‘s final years in Orange County.

Handicapping a literary Super Bowl between Louisiana (Truman Capote, Walker Percy) and Indiana (Kurt Vonnegut, Theodore Dreiser).

American writers may be helping Indian literature fall into a rut.

But at least one Indian interviewer figures the country can learn from Raymond Carver. (via HTMLGiant)

A new biography on the final years of Mark Twain‘s life squashes rumors that he was a pedophile. Also: a close study of Twain’s politics. (via Reason magazine)

Ha Jin: “On the one hand, it is a miserable life, because there’s so much anxiety. But on the other hand, if I don’t write, I feel ill.”

Inspirational Verse

“May I inquire how you were employed before entering the Army?” Esme asked me.

I said I hadn’t been employed at all, that I’d only been out of college a year but that I liked to think of myself as a professional short-story writer.

She nodded politely. “Published?” she asked.

It was a familiar but always touchy question, and one that I didn’t answer just one, two, three. I explained how most editors in America were a bunch—

“My father wrote beautifully,” Esme interrupted. “I’m saving a number of his letters for posterity.”

I said that sounded like a very good idea….

“I’d be extremely flattered if you’d write a story exclusively for me sometime. I’m an avid reader.”

I told her I certainly would, if I could. I said that I wasn’t terribly prolific.

“It doesn’t have to be terribly prolific! Just so that it isn’t childish and silly.” She reflected. “I prefer stories about squalor.”

“About what?” I said, leaning forward.

“Squalor. I’m extremely interested in squalor.”

J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010, “For Esme—With Love and Squalor”