Salinger's greatest trick: To disappear

Posted: Tuesday, February 02, 2010

W hen someone told me J.D. Salinger had died, I jokingly asked, "How do they know?"

It was dark humor and a tad disrespectful. But I was trying to be complimentary. Salinger, who was even more passionate about his privacy than his writing, had managed, at age 91, to die a legend in both areas.

That's right, kids: This man actually tried NOT to befamous.

Salinger wrote one book that people talk about, one book above the handful of others he penned. It was called "The Catcher in the Rye." Chances are you read it sometime during your adolescence.

If you're in your 70s now, you might have read it on your own, as a rite of passage, a book that spoke to you of the angst and restlessness of youth.

If you're in your 30s, 40s or 50s, you likely read it in high school, as an assignment.

If you're in your 20s or younger, you might have studied it in English class, or maybe downloaded it to see what all the fuss was about.

"Catcher in the Rye" spoke to a Cold War America about values, life and youthful identity. Its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is a teenager expelled from prep school, and the book, told in his uniquely sad, caustic, sensitive voice, talks about dreams, phony people, distrusting adults, and one day wanting to build "a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life" away from "stupid conversation with anybody."

Which is exactly what Salinger did.

Now, it's hard for the young to imagine a writer selling 60 million copies of a book and NOT wanting to do "The Catcher in the Rye, Part II" or "Catcher! The Video Game." But Salinger, who had been ambitious as a young man, quickly lost his taste for it. After a while, he ordered his photo removed from copies of his book. He told his agent to burn all his fan mail. He eventually moved to the woods of New Hampshire, on a 90-acre spread, and resisted all attempts to contact him. His life became one big "No Trespassing" sign.

Ironically, that only made him more legendary. Reporters tried and inevitably failed to get an interview. Publishers tried and inevitably failed to entice him to put out more books.

And hearing that he died this past week without ever giving in makes me admire him all the more. Salinger never swallowed this capitalize-on-your-fame command that Simon Cowell and YouTube have turned into an American birthright. He never even sold the movie rights to his most famous work. The more fuss people wanted to make, the less interested he was. The last written work to carry his name was in 1965. Then he stopped.

He was 46.

Because of this, some people saw him as nuts, a kook, a whack job. I didn't. He never told anyone not to read his books. On the contrary. That's ALL he wanted them to do.

On the other hand, many of us now think if you sing a song nicely, there needs to be a reality show about your life. You tell me. Who's the crazy party?

Salinger once told a reporter he loved to write and continued to do it, but publishing was an invasion to him. "I write just for myself and my own pleasure," he said.

If so, he is a truer artist than most.

There's a line that Holden Caulfield says in the book. He says, "People always clap for the wrong things."

Salinger wanted people to clap for the right things, his stories, not his private life, his interviews or the movie version of his work. I admired him for that. And every time I see a Paris Hilton story or an "American Idol" audition, I admire him even more.

• Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Readers may write to him at: Detroit Free Press, 600 West Fort Street, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or via e-mail at malbomfreepress.com.



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