J.D Salinger is dead. A lot of people much smarter than me have already discussed this. Over on Slate, Chris Wilson avoided an outright eulogy and instead touted “Seymour: An Introduction” as the deceased writer’s greatest work (Not true. Not even close). Via Twitter, Bret Easton Ellis mocked the writer’s death and planned a celebratory party. And all across Facebook you can find various people who haven’t read much since high school claiming that old Jerome was their favorite author, and that they’ll miss him dearly.
What I’d like to address is the question of what Salinger will be known for. Will future scholars look back on his brief career and modest output of literary fiction, or will they remember the nearly fifty years of silence and all the memoirs and bizarre legal wranglings? All writers hope to be remembered by the words left behind, the monk-like work done at the desk, and hopefully that will be the case with J.D. But one can certainly imagine a world in the not too distant future where Catcher in the Rye is purged from high schools much in the way A Separate Peace has fallen out of favor. It’s esoteric. It’s out of touch. The fragmented American identity no longer bears any tangible resemblance to that phony Holden Caufiled. And if Salinger loses his millions of guaranteed new readers each year from mandatory high school English classes, then it will be left to fans of literary fiction to remember the slim volume left behind by Salinger just like readers who still champion the work of other mid-century writers like Cheever and Updike even though they too have fallen off reading lists.
So what will last? What is remembered? Clearly, Catcher in the Rye will live on, but what about Salinger’s short fiction? Why does it seem that very few people when discussing Salinger’s work bring up Nine Stories? For my money, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esme–With Love and Squalor” are two of the finest examples of short fiction from not only the waning days of post-World War II traditional realism, but of any era. And surely Salinger devotees will remember Franny and Zooey and even the first novella of Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction with nostalgia. So what I hope for is that in the following weeks, when commentators discuss his strange post-literary career and the possibility of movies, sequels or even video games, we stop and remember the work Salinger shared with us. I hope we will remember the only part of him or herself that a writer can leave behind: the words, the words, the words.