Salinger: An Influential Voice, Even In 'Silence' [Opinion]

Ernest Hemingway famously said of Mark Twain's legacy that "we all of us came out from under Huck Finn's skirts." The same can be said, for contemporary writers, of Holden Caulfield, the narrator of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. It's impossible to be an American writer now and not feel the influence of Holden and of Salinger generally. The most perceptible way that we feel this is in Salinger's understanding of voice, the loose, colloquial, humane voice of Holden Caulfield, that very personal first-person, which became the template for so much American literature that came after. You can hear him in Bright Lights, Big City; you can hear him in Less Than Zero; you can hear him even in a television program like My So-Called Life.

The second part of Salinger's outsized legacy has to do with his commitment to the theme of family. I'm thinking especially of the four novellas that make up the last works he published in his lifetime, Franny and Zooey and then the two works titled Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Over the course of these novellas, Salinger's commitment to the Glass family, the protagonists of these works, deepened to an almost obsessive level; and while the Glass family was anything but functional, since it was noteworthy for suicide, religious obsession and game show appearances, Salinger was never less than devoted to them, and to the complexity of their interactions. A whole literature of the so-called dysfunctional family, including at least one work, The Ice Storm, by this writer, was spawned by these Glass chronicles.

And the last part of Salinger's legacy is the author's silence. After 1965, we all know now, Salinger turned his back on publishing and on the fame that had come with it, and though it is widely thought that he worked regularly thereafter, the work no longer belonged to us, his eager audience. For some, this silence was an irritant, but for my money, the silence was part and parcel of the spirituality of his later work; it was reverent, it was aesthetically consistent and it was confident.

Were I to say that I, like every other contemporary American writer, came out from under Salinger's skirts, I feel I would be saying that I admire his silence, too, just as I admire the tremendous accomplishment of his published work. It's an even more perfect silence now that he is gone, one that is unvarying, but one that is consistent nonetheless with the complete output of this singular American genius.

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