Author J.D. Salinger has died at age 91 of natural causes, according to the A.P. He was at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire.
In a 2001 essay, Janet Malcolm recounted a Salinger episode that played out in the pages of The Observer:
Salinger’s own perilous journey away from the world has brought many misfortunes down on his head. His modest wish for privacy was perceived as a provocation, and met with hostility much like the hostility toward the Glasses. Eventually it offered an irresistible opportunity for commercial exploitation. The pain caused Salinger by the crass, vengeful memoirs of, respectively, his former girlfriend, Joyce Maynard, and his daughter, Margaret, may be imagined. A redeeming moment occurred a few weeks after the publication of the latter book, when a letter by, of all people, Margaret’s younger brother, Matt, an actor who lives in New York, appeared in The New York Observer. He was writing to object to his sister’s book. “I would hate to think I were responsible for her book selling one single extra copy, but I am also unable not to plant a small flag of protest over what she has done, and much of what she has to say.” Matt went on to write of his sister’s “troubled mind” and of the “gothic tales of our supposed childhood” she had liked to tell and that he had not challenged because he thought they had therapeutic value for her. He continued:
“Of course, I can’t say with any authority that she is consciously making anything up. I just know that I grew up in a very different house, with two very different parents from those my sister describes. I do not remember even one instance of my mother hitting either my sister or me. Not one. Nor do I remember any instance of my father ‘abusing’ my mother in any way whatsoever. The only sometimes frightening presence I remember in the house, in fact, was my sister (the same person who in her book self-servingly casts herself as my benign protector)! She remembers a father who couldn’t ‘tie his own shoe-laces’ and I remember a man who helped me learn how to tie mine, and even-specifically-how to close off the end of a lace again once the plastic had worn away.”
What is astonishing, almost eerie about the letter, is the sound that comes out of it–the singular and instantly recognizable sound of Salinger, which we haven’t heard for nearly forty years (and to which the daughter’s heavy drone could not be more unrelated). Whether Salinger is the rat his girlfriend and daughter say he is will endlessly occupy his well-paid biographers, and cannot change anything in his art. The breaking of ranks in Salinger’s actual family only underscores the unbreakable solidarity of his imaginary one. “At least you know there won’t be any goddam ulterior motives in this madhouse,” Zooey tells Franny. “Whatever we are, we’re not fishy, buddy.” “Close on the heels of kindness, originality is one of the most thrilling things in the world, also the most rare!” Seymour writes in “Hapworth.” What is thrilling about that sentence is, of course, the order in which kindness and originality are put. And what makes reading Salinger such a consistently bracing experience is our sense of always being in the presence of something that–whatever it is–isn’t fishy.