Joan Smith: Salinger dismissed his children – that war generation did

Share
Related Topics

When the author J D Salinger died on Wednesday at the age of 91, his obituaries were as one in crediting him with the invention of teenage angst. His only published novel, The Catcher in the Rye, is regarded as the quintessential expression of adolescent alienation, while his refusal to explain himself intrigued critics.

Such stubborn resistance to celebrity culture – Salinger disliked it before the term was invented – is a luxury few authors can afford. But it also means that he is misunderstood; most commentators harp on the obvious – Salinger was one of the first to give a fictional voice to people who were no longer children but not quite adults – and fail to recognise the origins of what is really a brilliant imposture.

Salinger was 32 when The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, not quite twice the age of his anti-hero, Holden Caulfield. First-rate novelists are able to simulate the emotions of characters far removed from themselves, but there are clues to suggest that Salinger immersed himself in Caulfield in a retreat from adult experiences he could not process.

Men and women who grew up in the 1920s and 30s, as Salinger did, were plunged into unimaginable horrors in young adulthood. I was an adult when I realised that my father suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder after joining the Royal Navy in 1940 and spending most of the war on Atlantic convoys.

Salinger was three years older than my father. Drafted into the US Army in 1942, he took part in the Normandy landings and the Battle of the Bulge, and witnessed the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. His daughter, Margaret Salinger, recognised that he too suffered from PTSD, and thought it explained the coldness and obsessive behaviour she wrote about in her memoir, Dream Catcher.

The opening paragraph of The Catcher in the Rye, in which Holden says he isn't going to write "all that David Copperfield kind of crap", signals that its teenage narrator is having to cauterise his emotions.

Holden is in a clinic after being thrown out of school and running away to New York, where he shows off, feels lost and covers his misery with teenage bravado. His most striking characteristics are vulnerability and a protective instinct towards his 10-year-old sister, the only person he can talk to. This is explained by the loss of a brother from leukaemia but Holden is also distancing himself from feelings of emptiness and parental neglect.

This is exactly the emotional damage many post-war children encountered at home; in wealthy families, the kids were sent to boarding school. In working-class families, we were exhorted to work hard at school and go to university. Few of us returned home.

Holden's denunciation of the older generation as "phonies" provided a vocabulary of rejection for kids who felt – often with justification – rejected by their own parents.

There are many ironies in this, not least the fact that Salinger was old enough to be the father of his first teenage fans and shared the emotional paralysis which created their hero. "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nostrils," he told his daughter in a rare moment of openness about his war.

Salinger was indubitably a great novelist, but I suspect he wrote so well about teenage misery because he belonged to a generation which created so much of it.

www.politicalblonde.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Forget charging by the page - with books, heart matters more than heft

Katy Guest
Nai or Oxi: whether Greece says Yes or No today its citizens will continue to struggle  

Greece crisis: Referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its lack of genuine legitimacy

Rupert Cornwell
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test