“Here's a song to those who are gone, with never a reason why
And a toast of the wine at the end of the line
And a toll of the bell for the next one to die.”
—Phil Ochs, “A Toast to Those Who Are Gone,” 1963
A framed photograph of J.D. Salinger hangs over my desk at work. Taped near the door is a copy of a typewritten letter signed by him to a teacher named Madeline dated May 12, 1991, the original of which I bought off a reputable dealer on eBay (an indulgence others questioned, but one I've never regretted). And on the windowsill adjacent to my computer, all four of his books sit side by side, their dog-eared maroon, white, and yellow spines the only constant in every office I've had since I started my publishing career back in 1985.
Salinger died on Wednesday, January 27, at 91. For 34 of those years he's been not just my favorite writer but a symbol. He ceased publishing on June 19, 1965, when his last short story appeared in the New Yorker. He continued to write, but instead chose to write for himself, without needing any outside validation or the trappings that come with publication. Salinger opted out of being a public figure, and for most of his life he remained private, walking the walk of self-sufficiency.
Salinger wrote one novel, nine short stories, and four novellas. In addition he published 22 uncollected short stories. Despite this scant, quantifiable output, his writing changed the way I thought. The way I wrote. And when I was in high school, unsure of who or what I would be when I grew up, he pointed me in a direction incongruous to the Brooklyn neighborhood where I lived.
I've reread The Catcher in the Rye every Christmas break since, and it's like revisiting an old friend. Reading the book each year is the manifestation of how Salinger describes the Museum of Natural History: “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.” Few things in life are more comforting to me than that concept.
When we designed the cover of the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book in 2007, the color was chosen to evoke the Bantam paperback edition of The Catcher in the Rye. Its maroon background and yellow type was a subliminal signal that the lineage of Greg Heffley could be found in Holden Caulfield: Greg doesn't like being bullied or picked on, but he bullies and picks on his best friend Rowley and his little brother Manny. He doesn't like his brother Rodrick for being manipulative, but unlike his calculating brother, Greg manipulates without realizing he's doing it. He's Holden's blood brother in phoniness. Their stories are both told in first-person, and their voices articulate the same dissatisfaction of adolescence. Jeff Kinney's opening, “First of all, let me get something straight: This is a JOURNAL, not a diary” evokes Salinger's “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” No eight-year-old reader was ever supposed to make the connection. I doubt Jeff was even conscious of the comparison when he wrote it. But it's all part of the DNA of his story, a quality and a tone shared by just about everything written on the subject of adolescence published after Salinger cast his antihero out onto the cold streets of a New York City winter in 1951.
That a writer with Salinger's talent chose to write but to no longer publish has always been a symbol to me of individuality—especially in a time when we Twitter and Tweet the banalities of our daily lives, Facebook with “friends” we never meet, and blog our innermost thoughts about our literary heroes. If only we could all walk as securely as Salinger did for 91 years.