At a recent book club meeting, we read and discussed the classic “Catcher in the Rye” by the notoriously reclusive (and now deceased) J.D. Salinger. It was a book I hadn’t read since probably my late teens or early 20s – the usual age when people seem to gravitate to the book. It seems to have been written for teens and young adults. But that’s not the only age demographic to whom the books appeals.
Reading it again, I found that its character of Holden Caulfield, and his youthfully cynical perspective on life, still holds power over me. To be sure, Holden is disillusioned with life as he teeters on the cusp of adulthood. Finishing the book, I found I’d fallen in love with Holden once again.
A particularly meaningful passage for me was the scene in the Natural History Museum in New York, where Holden lingers by the exhibits that never change – the deer drinking at waterholes and the birds in midflight, perennially aloft. “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move,” Holden remarks. To me, it’s symbolic about his reticence to leave childhood behind and his desire for things to remain the same.
Having finished this book, I – like so many other readers — wanted to know more about the mysterious Salinger, the author with the brooding eyes and handsome face. I watched the 2013 documentary titled “Salinger” and learned more about his reclusiveness, his absolute absorption in his writing and the life of his characters – a habit that often meant the neglect of his second wife, Claire Douglas and their two children, Margaret and Matthew – as well as his interest in holistic and alternative medicine, and his embrace of Eastern religions and later Scientology.
The documentary also led me to discover that his daughter and memoirist, Margaret “Peggy” Salinger and the woman with whom he lived for 11 months – the writer Joyce Maynard, had written books about the lives they shared with the reclusive author.
I ordered both their books online and read Peggy’s first, “Dream Catcher” and then Joyce’s, “At Home in the World.” I was eager to know what it was like to live with a man who was engulfed by his own creative endeavors. I was also particularly interested in knowing about Joyce’s experience, considering that she was still a teenager when she met Salinger, who at the time was 53. Salinger was notorious for his attraction to women vastly younger than he was and that intrigued me, since it mirrored a relationship I had had with a man considerably older than I was that similarly lasted only 11 months and ended just as abruptly as Joyce and J.D. Salinger’s.
What I learned was that J.D. Salinger, or as he’s known to his familiars as Jerry, was Holden Caulfield (or should I say Holden Caulfield was Jerry Salinger). He was literally channeling himself through his character of Holden. I also learned, through the pen of Peggy and Joyce, that while Salinger was charming and charismatic, he also was narcissistic, self-absorbed, discontent, contemptuous and critical of others while unable to accept criticism towards himself, manipulative and in many instances an abusive person. Continue reading