Tuesday night PBS aired American Masters, in an attempt to unravel the mystery that was J.D. Salinger. A notorious recluse, Salinger was a child of privilege, attending Ivy league schools and living with his parents on Park Ave. As a young man he enlists in WW II, and sees some of the worst the European theater had to offer. He crawls out of the trenches of Europe shattered and headed for a nervous break-down.
I remember reading Catcher in the Rye in junior high during the 80’s. It was cloaked in mystery. They burned it in Boston, it’s full of swear words, its mythic, and we had to read it. In hindsight it’s a strange addition to the cannon of public school must-reads. Like a lot of teenagers I was wrestling with depression, and hated school. Reading Catcher in the Rye was like throwing a drowning man a cinder block. But watching the parade of celebrity endorsements on American Masters, CITR was great! It was a teenage manifesto, something they (largely men on the show) could identify with. Strange how disappointment and disturbance strikes people so differently. Salinger was riding that surfboard called the zeitgeist, because for a post 60’s generation the bubble had already burst. We were along way from Eisenhower’s 1950’s America. It’s no wonder readers identified with Holden Caulfield, but where they made their mistake was looking for answers from a recalcitrant J.D. Salinger.
In the final moments of the American Masters episode, footage of an elderly Salinger climbing into the passenger seat of a light colored SUV is shown. He looks happy. Earlier in the program Salinger is quoted as saying he is the only person who could play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaption. So it seems appropriate that Salinger, the creator of the world’s most famous teenager, rides into the sunset with a former au pair.