This is a difficult death to parse, absence compounding absence. The overriding distinction of J.D. Salinger, both as a writer and as a celebrity, has always been his fundamental non-presence. On the page and in life, Salinger’s most memorable role has been the Man Who Isn’t There. He’s always been Not There for me and I’ve loved him for it, ever since I snuck Nine Stories down from my father’s bookshelf when I was eleven.
Salinger’s work draws its strength from its pointed authorial absence. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield bursts off the page precisely because Salinger gets out of his way. For all their stylistic innovations, writers like Steinbeck and Faulkner and Hemingway never vacated their own stages, leaving them entirely to the characters; their language always announced their constant presence on the page. In contrast, Salinger was “intimate and artless,” in the words of a 1951 reviewer, “for the reader who can attune himself to the inelegant.” He moved toward transparency, toward disappearing.
Ultimately, he did disappear. The strange thing is now that Salinger has passed away at the age of 91, this isn’t a cue to strike up the elegies and ponder his legacy or any of that other Literary Lion panegryia, because for once the passing isn’t necessarily into silence. It was, by all accounts, a productive isolation for Salinger: he didn’t stop writing, he just stopped caring about publication. Having tired of contemporary celebrity, he opted (quite reasonably, to my mind) to skip directly to the posterity part. If reports are correct–if Salinger wasn’t just shamming his friends and family–there are somewhere between two and fifteen booklength manuscripts tucked away in the vault of his study, all archived with the intention of eventually seeing the light of day. It is no doubt of variable brilliance, and we may see only a little or none at all. But the fact remains that the last act of our extended non-relationship may prove to be an eloquent one.
He engineered his life this way, to resume speaking only after he was gone. So thank you, Mr. Salinger. Goodbye, and hello.