The famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger, best known for his
seminal coming-of-age novel
The Catcher in Rye, died last Wednesday at age 91. He lived a very private life, avoiding the media whenever possible, so news of his death eluded the media until the following day. But once the public found out, an impressive outpouring of tributes followed.
The possibility of later Salinger works being released to the public after his death has fans and critics salivating. He only had four books in print (1951s The Catcher in the Rye is his only published novel) and he stopped publishing after he released a collection of short stories called Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. This leaves over forty years of potential work unaccounted for. With such a small public output, some fans would read anything the author wrote, no matter how rough the draft.
His work was undeniably influential. None of it, however, exceeded the cultural impact of The Catcher in the Rye, which became a classroom staple (although some school boards banned it amid protests from parents over swearing and the bad influence they feared it would exert over their children). Despite all this, the novels protagonist, Holden Caulfield, grew into an iconic figure in literature, one whose distaste for the phony adult world is allegedly shared by many readers today.
The Catcher in the Rye provided a template for a surplus of solitary, disillusioned protagonists in young adult fiction—and in real life too: John Lennon’s murderer, Mark Chapman, cited The Catcher in the Rye as an inspiration for the killing in 1980.
The books influence, however,
can also be seen in many works intended for older audiences. Contemporary authors such as Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland have displayed Salinger-like qualities in some of their work.
Dave Eggers 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, explores a time in Eggers life when both of his parents had passed away within a short time of each other and he was forced to care for his younger brother. His discontented views on the world recall a tone not unlike that of Caulfields. Caulfield also speaks in a slang style that was popular at the time of The Catcher in the Ryes writing, and Eggers unconventional memoir format and unique writing style also feels very era-appropriate. It comes as no surprise that Eggers wrote a lengthy tribute piece for The New Yorker after Salingers death, praising his work, and admiring the dialogue in his books.
Douglas Coupland, one of Canadas most prominent contemporary writers, has tackled many different topics over the course of his 12 published novels, but Salingers influence can be found in several of his protagonists, who are often disconnected from the world around them. Whether it is the bored Staples employees in The Gum Thief or the Bill Gates-worshipping Gen Xers in Microserfs, aspects of Salingers worldview can certainly be found in Couplands work.
It would be intriguing to see what went on in Salingers mind after his retreat from the publishing world. Ten years ago, it was reported that the reclusive author had a secret cache of about 15 unpublished novels. And in his last interview in 1980, he said that he wrote only for himself. (According to The Guardian, his literary agent declined to comment on whether the novels still exist, or are likely to be published).
But even without additional Salinger material, the influence of his few released works will continue to inspire many new authors for a long time to come.