‘People always clap for the wrong things’

J.D. Salinger. Cover of Time, Sept 15, 1961.

Portrait of J.D. Salinger,Time, Sept 15, 1961.

WHY ALL the fuss about three unpublished J.D. Salinger stories?

Why indeed. News that the three works had leaked online last week made headlines on news sites worldwide.

No doubt part of the furore was fuelled by literary interest but most of it had less to do with the writings and more with the persona of Salinger the Recluse.

“The appearance of the stories would have undoubtedly enraged Salinger” wrote one commentator, a summation of the general consensus on the leak and a hint that more of the interest concerns the stories’ publication rather than their actual content.

Of course the author’s opinion matters little. Salinger died in 2010 and – even if he was alive – his sole public comment on the matter would likely have been by way of legal writ.

Public opinion itself may have just as little impact. After all how many people went beyond the headlines to seek out and read the stories over the past week?

_____

Who reads Salinger nowadays anyway?

A week or so before news broke of the three unpublished stories I was sitting with a friend in a Dublin bar when the topic of The Catcher In The Rye came up.

D had just completed it for the first time and we agreed that this was unusual, given the book’s popular (if inaccurate) reputation as a touchstone for teenagers.

"I was wondering where the ducks went..."  Pond, Central Park, New York

“I was wondering where the ducks went…”
Pond, Central Park, New York

A conversation followed  on the book’s appeal, the character of Holden Caulfield, the famous metaphor of the ducks on the lagoon near Central Park South, and some of its more famous lines (“People always clap for the wrong things,” being one).

We agreed that the book was re-readable, a classic, a work capable of altering your view of the world.

Then it occurred to me: what other Salinger had I read, or could I recall?

I remember pushing through Franny And Zooey, unable to sleep from jet lag in a hotel room not too far from the Glass family’s fictional Upper East Side apartment. I found the two works tiring at times, occasionally self-indulgent, unimpressive.

_____

Returning home that evening I dug out my unread copy of Nine Stories, a collection of pieces which mostly appeared in the New Yorker and which established Salinger’s literary reputation before the celebrity of The Catcher In The Rye altered it beyond his, or anyone else’s, control..

Unlike the three leaked stories the author consented to the publication of this 1953 collection; it’s regarded as containing a number of his best short works.

Nine Stories.

Nine Stories.

The Salinger here is far removed from the recluse, the litigant or curmudgeon, of popular culture.

Though familiar themes are present (the sanctity of childhood and innocence, perfectly paced dialogue, a sly, not unkind humour) this is a collection mostly about war.

Salinger served as an infantryman, landed on Utah Beach and witnessed the horrors of a concentration camp near Dachau. He was later hospitalised for combat stress reaction.

The conflict, and its after-effects, linger in the background of some of the stories and are front centre in others (the collection’s centrepiece, For Esmé – with Love And Squalor, addresses post-traumatic stress disorder).

While Holden Caulfield’s catcher tries to save children from loss of innocence the best of Nine Stories celebrates innocence regained – through moments of human connection and self-realisation.

Or as war-weary soldier ‘X’ writes, having finally found peace of mind by way of a kind letter from the orphan Esme and her little brother: “You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

Three new Salinger stories? Best try these Nine.

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