For Salinger, with Love and Squalor

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is when I first read The Catcher in the Rye and how it influenced my lousy adolescence, and how all of us phonies read it and all that kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

What was it about J. D. Salinger?

J.D. Salinger
J.D. Salinger

He wrote so little, and his stories were read by so many (over and over again).

I say it was his style.  Catcher is the American idiom, like Huck Finn.  And the stories have that versatile, ingenious subtext that allow for some interesting mind games.  The perfect choice of words and never one out of place.  And his characters.  The relationships.  The incredible dialogue.  Whatever — volumes have been written by worldly scholars.

In college, in freshman English, Dr. Lee Potter, our professor, had a conference with each student in the class.  He assigned each of us a book of stories.  The choices were Salinger, Hemingway, Philip Roth, and Flannery O’Connor. Whoever we got, we were married to for the entire semester.  Every paper would be about that one book of stories.

I remember him saying that he wished he could tear off the covers of the books so we didn’t know the titles, who wrote them, when they wrote them, or anything about them — so that our response to the stories could be pure.

This was my first month of college, and I remember sitting in that little office, scared to death of this professor (who was an exceptionally nice man).  I said I thought I should have Hemingway. Dr. Potter told me he thought I was the Salinger type.

He told me that Salinger and Roth were both Jewish, but with Roth, it was obvious in every sentence.  With Salinger, you’d never know.

I did my best.  I remember sitting in the stacks for hours, searching the old issues of Story and Colliers magazines, finding Salinger’s early, pre-New Yorker, short-short stories, and devouring them.  And I tried my best to unlock the hidden, deeper meanings of those Nine Stories he assigned.

In the end, I missed the mark, by miles, with every paper I wrote — and Dr. Potter set me straight every time, spilling gallons of blood on my papers.

Every grade was the same:  B-/C+.

It was like high school French class.  For three years — 12 quarters — I got a B every time.  No matter how well I did, or how bad I did, I never got an A or a C.

The problem is, you can’t get a B-/C+ as a final grade.  As I recall, Wake Forest did not have plusses and minuses on final grades.  It was either a B or a C.  I can still feel that anxiety — hoping that some brilliant insight in one of my papers would impress Dr. Potter enough to tip the ultimate mark towards B.  It didn’t.  The final grade was, and still is, a C.

One day, while home for a weekend in college, I was reading Esquire magazine in the bathroom when I came across a fascinating story.  It was written by Anonymous, and it sounded exactly like J.D. Salinger.

Well!  That was a discovery!  I stormed into Dr. Potter’s office first thing Monday morning, Esquire in hand.

“It’s Salinger!” I said.  “He’s published a story!  Look at all these words in italics!”

He read the story and said he was proud of me.  “That means something,” Dr. Potter told me.

Newspaper reports endorsed the cleverness of my discovery.  The world was abuzz with speculation about Salinger.

A couple of months later it was reported that the story was written as a hoax, by one of the magazine’s editors.

I took three courses under Dr. Potter and never got a B, but I loved listening to him talk about literature.  He had an accent.  At first, I thought he was from England. (He was from Georgia).

And I loved watching him switch eyeglasses throughout his lectures.  He had at least three pair — identical frames in slightly different colors.  He’d read a passage, look up, and take off his beige framed glasses.  He’d talk for a minute, then grab the brown ones and begin reading again.  It’s been over 30 years, and I still remember the time he held all three pair in his hands, looked down, blindly, trying to decide which ones to wear, and said “Good God!”

Towards the end of that first semester of college, back when the drinking age was 18, he invited us all to his house for “a cup of Christmas cheer.”

Salinger is the literary giant, but Lee Potter, with his passion for story, was the one who made an impression on me.

For Esmé, with Love and Squalor” is often cited as one of the best American short stories ever written, and has always been one of my favorites. I probably read it five times before I finally looked up the word squalor.  Gotta find it and read it once again, in honor of Salinger’s death.

It will be interesting what happens now.  Will Salinger’s estate be as secret as his life?  If not, what’s he been doing for the past 50 years?  Any new stories in the closet?  Are they under the bed?  In the safe, soon to be released?  Will his lawyers and heirs be loyal, or will they squalidly sell the rights to The Catcher in the Rye to James Cameron.

Shunning fame made Salinger famously famous.  If he had not been a recluse, it’s likely he would have lost the mystique and adoration.  He would have written a really bad book or two, and could possibly have gone down as a writer who wrote a couple of hits and lost his touch.

So if you really want to know the goddamn truth about it, I hope he’s able to keep his privacy, his zen, for chrissake, and his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.