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OPINION: Maybe Salinger wasn't such a curmudgeon

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American Studies and literature at Sarah Lawrence College. His most recent book is "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."

 

J.D. Salinger's death last week at 91 has revived the charge that the creator of the much-loved Holden Caulfield was really a curmudgeon, an anti-Holden who took pride in slamming the door on admirers. It's a charge that suggests Salinger harbored disdain for his readers, especially when they threatened to become fans. But the reverse is the truth. Salinger cared deeply about the readers and students who were engaged by his work. It was his capacity to disappoint them that worried Salinger.

Nothing illustrates the depth of this worry more clearly than Salinger's only teaching experience. The story of the experience is one that Salinger told his friend, New Yorker editor William Maxwell, who then made the story part of the biography of Salinger that he wrote for the July 1951 Book of the Month Club News to accompany the publication of "The Catcher in the Rye."

"A year or so ago, I was asked to speak to a short story class at Sarah Lawrence College. I went, and I enjoyed the day, but it isn't something I'd ever want to do again. I got very oracular and literary. I found myself labeling all the writers I respect," Salinger told Maxwell. "A writer, when he's asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves."

Salinger believed what he told Maxwell to such a degree that he never taught again, and he never took advantage of the lucrative college lecture circuit to add to his income. But for the students whose class he visited at Sarah Lawrence, Salinger's teaching debut was anything but a failure. Just the opposite, as we can see from the letter that Hortense Flexner King, the writer who had asked Salinger to speak to her Intermediate Writing Class, wrote Harold Taylor, then the president of Sarah Lawrence, about her guest instructor.

"I made a 'blind date' the other day with a young writer of the N. Yorker, and he made a great hit with my girls," King wrote Taylor. "By name, J.D. Salinger. He also made a hit with me."

Would Salinger, just 30 and far from famous in 1949, have felt encouraged to try more teaching had he read King's note? All we can know is how much harder Salinger judged himself than those who heard him speak at Sarah Lawrence. That same year in a biographical note he wrote for Harper's, Salinger did, however, spell out how hard he was prepared to be on himself when he complained of writers who wanted to impress their readers with facts about their working lives and war exploits. "The writer who tells you these things is also very likely to have his picture taken wearing an open-collared shirt - and he's sure to be looking three-quarter profile and tragic," Salinger sardonically observed.

Salinger never wanted to be that kind of writer, but what is more revealing is that in his own fiction, he was never sardonic when he talked about a writer connecting with his readers or being good teacher. In "The Catcher in the Rye," Holden Caulfield is absolutely sincere when he confesses, "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."

Years later in his 1959 short story, "Seymour: An Introduction," Buddy Glass, Salinger's fictional double, makes a parallel observation, saying of the writing class that he teaches at a women's college: "There isn't one girl in there, including the Terrible Miss Zabel, who is not as much my sister as Boo Boo or Franny. . . . This thought manages to stun me: There's no place I'd really rather go right now than into Room 307."

Small wonder then that Salinger, who labored so hard to make his own writing as perfect as he could, found the strain of trying for the same level of perfection in his personal relationships with readers and students too much to bear.

It was a failing that Salinger bore admirably, but at the same time he had reason to hope for more sympathy than he got for his pains - especially from critics who claimed to take his writing seriously. Years before his death, Salinger should not have had to sum up how he had come to be portrayed in the media by telling an interviewer who called him at his home in Cornish, N.H., "I'm known as a strange, aloof kind of man."

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