J.D. Salinger: a gift of words and silence

Copies of "The Catcher in the Rye" as well as Salinger's volume of short stories are seen at a public library in Orange Village, Ohio.
(Amy Sancetta / Associated Press)

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything,” J.D. Salinger wrote in the closing lines of “The Catcher in the Rye.” “If you do, you start missing everybody.”

For more than two decades now, I’ve thought about that ending as a piece of code. Not that Salinger, who died Wednesday at age 91 in Cornish, N.H., was an oracle, despite what his most dedicated followers -- those who hung around his driveway, hoping for a glimpse of the reclusive author, or parsed his sentences on a million websites -- might believe.

But Salinger was a writer who refracted his perspective into language, producing work that was personal and profound. Between 1951 and 1965, he produced four uncommonly sensitive books of fiction -- “Catcher,” “Nine Stories,” “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” -- before retreating to his home in Cornish and refusing to publish any more.

As he once wrote to biographer Ian Hamilton (in the course of suing Hamilton for quoting from his unpublished letters), “I think I’ve borne all the exploitation and loss of privacy I can possibly bear in a single lifetime.”

For the last 45 years, this was the encoded story, Salinger’s self-imposed silence, as readers debated whether he was still writing or off in some twilit oblivion of his own. For his part, Salinger’s interactions with the public were infrequent and largely litigious. As recently as July, he won an injunction preventing the release of an unauthorized sequel to “The Catcher in the Rye.”

And yet, our collective fascination with his life rather than his writing suggests another bit of code, or at least a set of clues. Wasn’t this, after all, what Salinger was rejecting, a culture of celebrity in which the most important thing was appearance and no one cared about the level of the soul?

“I just quit, that’s all,” Franny Glass tells her boyfriend early in “Franny and Zooey,” explaining why she gave up acting. " . . . I don’t know. It seemed like such poor taste, sort of, to want to act in the first place. I mean all the ego. And I used to hate myself so, when I was in a play, to be backstage after the play was over. All those egos running around feeling terribly charitable and warm.”

For all that “The Catcher in the Rye” made him famous, “Franny and Zooey” is Salinger’s masterpiece, an evocation of loss and longing within the bonds of family. Composed of two novellas, it introduces the youngest members of the Glass family, about whom Salinger would devote more than half of his published work.

The Glasses are a New York creation, theatrical but also intellectual, middle class but bohemian at the same time. They talk and fight like immigrants, but they pursue esoteric pursuits, most notably Eastern philosophy and Buddhism, like members of the leisured elite.

In a sense, this was reflective of Salinger’s experience; growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the son of a Scotch-Irish mother and a wealthy Jewish father, he had a foot in several worlds. Yet more to the point, the Glasses offered Salinger a wide lens through which to look at the intersection of mystical and secular culture, at the satisfactions of the spirit and of the flesh.

In “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” he describes a night on which Franny, then an infant, is moved into the room shared by her brothers Buddy and Seymour, to avoid “a siege of mumps.” As the baby fusses, Seymour reads to her; the story he chooses is a Taoist tale. “To this day,” Salinger writes, “Franny swears that she remembers Seymour reading it to her” -- an echo that reverberates throughout his work.

Seymour, after all, is the sainted genius of the Glass family, the oldest brother whose suicide Salinger recounts with just the right touch of understatement in his short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” And “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” is an account of Seymour’s wedding, an account that, because we know about his death from the outset, comes encoded with its own end.

That, of course, is true of everything, of all human endeavor, which is an expression of futility in the face of the void. Salinger understood this, maybe because of a nervous breakdown he is said to have experienced during World War II, maybe because of his embrace of Buddhism.

Either way, the Glass stories are all about renunciation -- as is “The Catcher in the Rye,” in its way. This is why generations of adolescents have responded to “Catcher’s” 16-year-old hero, Holden Caulfield, for his ability to see through the machinations of the adult world.

“Hey, Sally,” he says to a girl he’s taken on a date. " . . . Did you ever get fed up? I mean did you ever get scared that everything was going to go lousy unless you did something? I mean do you like school, and all that stuff? . . . Well, I hate it. Boy, do I hate it. . . . But it isn’t just that. It’s everything.”

What Salinger is evoking here is the contradiction of his own heart: the need to express himself, even though he knows that it won’t get him anywhere.

Ultimately, perhaps, this may be why he took his leave from the world nearly half a century before he actually left it, why he stopped publishing.

It makes for a complicated legacy, since how are we to know what to think of him, when so much remains beyond our reach?

And yet, it doesn’t matter, not really, for in his books, we find the essence of a fully articulated worldview, in which silence and expression go hand in hand.

Ulin is book editor of The Times.