I last wrote about the late author of The Catcher in the Rye in Commentary in 1987:
V.S. Pritchett once described The Way of All Flesh as “one of the time bombs of literature.” J.D. Salinger’s books have had an equally potent and similarly delayed effect on American culture. The influence of Catcher could be seen as early as the mid-50’s, at the height of the first teen-age revolution, when James Dean and Elvis Presley and Jack Kerouac were on the mind of every right-thinking American teen. And the earliest children of the baby boom responded with equal fervor a few years later to Salinger’s seductive invitation to join what Mary McCarthy has aptly called “the world of insiders.” Salinger became their very own author, a hip guru whose Zen-flavored gospel of youthful authenticity and neurotic rebellion was presumably unintelligible to the unfeeling adult world.
All demographic accidents have unforeseen consequences, and one of the most unlikely cultural outcomes of the baby boom has been the survival of Holden Caulfield into the age of Ronald Reagan. That Salinger’s work would have an enduring appeal for the baby boomers was predictable. He is, after all, their Glenn Miller. His books, like Mrs. Glass’s “consecrated chicken soup,” are a kind of literary comfort food for bruised veterans of the Big Chill….
I haven’t thought about Salinger, or felt moved to reread any of his work, since then. It will be interesting to see how long his books survive him–and us.
P.S. How strange it is to realize that Salinger and Louis Auchincloss were nearly the same age!