The sadness of J.D. Salinger's passing away isn't that there won't be new work to look forward to — because there are all those yet to be published Glass stories in the safe — but that it's the end of a kind of silence we had begun taking refuge in. Salinger's solitude, silence, and refusal to publish only drew us closer to him: how could we not find his long (50 years!) emblematic resistance to publicity, adulation, success and money instructive, comforting, and very nearly a sanctuary?
A friend called to say she wished Salinger had published more: ‘his refusal to dialogue feels authoritarian', she said. There was that, but it was only one aspect of his silence and invisibility I wanted to tell her. Like many who worshipped daily at the altar of his work and life, I have tried to listen to that silence; dialogue with it. I would say his reclusiveness made more conversation and engagement possible by provoking us, seducing us.
The artist as hermit; the artist as seer; the artist as renunciate — where silence and vocation and contemplation aren't retreat from the world but an intense, passionate and creative engagement with it. What the Trappist monk Thomas Merton once called ‘elected silence'. Salinger was a stunning instance of a great writer who found more fulfilments and joy in writing for himself than in writing for a public. “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
There's an undeclared aspect to this Salinger statement that's often missed: yes, he wrote for himself but also (and always) for a particular reader. You. Yes, yes, you. “You'll deny it up and down, I fear, but I'm really in no position to take your word for it…I look on my old fair-weather friend the general reader as my last deeply contemporary confidant.” Hadn't Buddy Glass told us this a long time ago in Seymour: An Introduction?
“I privately say to you, old friend (unto you, really, I'm afraid), please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((( )))).” And from between and within these floral parentheses he has always, always been talking to us; who after all do you imagine Holden has been shooting the breeze with these many years? “Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody”. That's the very last thing Holden told us.
But his creator, who has always kept a “steady and sober regard for the amenities of such a relationship”— that is, the private, intimate and secret conversation between writer and reader — could not, over and over again, resist taking us into his confidence in the Glass stories. So, there was always that dialogic quality to his stories. But to talk back to Salinger would destroy not just the private universe that Buddy Glass and we share inside the Glass stories, it would also shatter Salinger's own immersion in it. To do so would be stepping outside “the casino proper of my fiction”, S would say.
And this is what legions of fans could not resist doing: mistakenly calling on the author, when they should, like Salinger, have been content with hanging out with Franny, Zooey, Buddy, Seymour, Bessie, Boo-Boo, Charlotte, Holden, Esme, De Daumier Smith, the Matron of Honour and the mute, grinning bride's father's uncle with the lighted cigar. Because “how terrible it is when you say I love you and the person at the other end shouts back What?”
Reading the reader
On every page of the Glass stories this Zen Buddhist-Vedantin-Homeopath adept's other self, writer Buddy Glass, is acutely aware of the reader; actually listening for a reader: “Oh, you out there — with your enviable golden silence”, he calls out to us mid-paragraph. “Oddly, the joys and satisfactions of working on the Glass family peculiarly increase and deepen for me with the years,” he confessed. “I have several new Glass stories coming along — waxing, dilating — each in its own way, but I suspect the less said about them, in mixed company, the better.”
See, that's the hesitation, the shyness — mixed company. He'd rather talk to you ‘the old confidant', ‘the bird lover', the ‘amateur reader who reads and runs'. It is friendship and love he was offering us. Didn't Buddy say, “My current offering isn't a mystical story, or a religiously mystifying story, at all. I say it is a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated.”
Bill Watterson, another reclusive artist who stopped publishing said that for him “Calvin and Hobbes” was a strip ‘about private realities, the magic of imagination, and the special-ness of certain friendships.'
Salinger never stopped talking to us. What he did really was to continue doing what that other dear old Tiger that sleeps, Seymour, said a writer must do: “Give me a story that makes me unreasonably vigilant.” And that's as good a definition of the Glass stories — published and unpublished — as any.
The enchanting and brilliant companionship of the Glass stories will never cease to make us kind and happy, and fill us with delight.
I don't think there ever has — or will be — a voice like J.D. Salinger's in literature, nor is there anything in it as original, beautiful and tender as the Glass stories. Writing was his religion. In my head I have carried on a conversation with Salinger's imagination through the four Glass novellas and Nine Stories: it has never stopped and is not likely to stop now that he is no more. The stories we hear he had been working on (in his filing system, said his daughter Margaret, he has “red dots on stories that are ready to go, should he die”) are very likely stories that continue the miniature saga of the Glass family.
I sincerely believe that even here, in these unpublished stories, Salinger did not abandon his old fair weather friends, his readers: that while working 14 straight hours every day for five decades in that studio garage in Cornish with no intention to publish, deepening and embellishing the world of the Glass family, he kept his old confidants by his side, those bird lovers, still listening to him with that “enviable, golden silence”.