I first read The Catcher in the Rye, as is mandated in the U.S. Constitution, as a semi-rebellious high schooler — rebellious enough to wear a nose ring and filthy milk-stained pants but not rebellious enough to refuse to read a 50-year-old canonical novel. The book begins, famously, with one of the most liberating sentences a bookish teenager could ever hope to encounter: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” This immaculate conception — a child born not by his parents but in a self-generated burst of pure voice — placed Holden Caulfield in a proud American line that stretches at least as far back as Huck Finn, who also began by telling us that we shouldn’t worry about his beginnings (“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter”).
Salinger, apparently, didn’t feel like getting into “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” about his own life, either. For decades he was our most famous literary recluse. (The extinguished torch has now been passed to Thomas Pynchon.) But he always struck me as an odd candidate for hermitage — despite his flights of antisocial mysticism, the energy of Salinger’s prose was relentlessly sociable, charming, and connective. He was practically sitting right there with you as you read, reaching over and turning the pages. It seemed ridiculous that in real life he was nowhere to be found. But that was one of the exciting things about him: You had to imagine Salinger, the actual man, the same way you imagined his characters — to summon the reality out of a disembodied voice.
It’s hard to know how to mourn a recluse — all we have is the absence of an absence. Maybe, at least, this will be good for the part of Salinger that has been present all along: his books. It always struck me as unfair that Catcher in the Rye got ghetto-ized as a slightly embarrassing young adult novel — a stick of gum to chew on your way to the big square meal of Hemingway or Fitzgerald — and that Salinger’s name was invoked most often as dismissive shorthand for the kind of self-satisfied uptown preciousness you found in, say, a bad Wes Anderson movie. Maybe this second layer of absence — his new, permanent, involuntary invisibility — will bring people back to the living richness of his work.