Rereading J.D. Salinger after his death on January 27, I am struck by an improbable connection between his work and that of Jack Kerouac. Both were writing in the late Forties and Fifties, from opposite ends of the social spectrum, but with a relentless ethos of nonconformism at the center of their fiction. Salinger, however, has none of Kerouac’s easy American Romanticism, much less his patriotic celebration of the open road. Salinger’s world is one of constricted New York spaces: bathrooms, restaurants, hotel rooms, buses, a tiny obstructed table in a piano bar where one barely has room enough to sit down. The high cost of not conforming is far more palpable in Salinger than in Kerouac. For Salinger’s characters, to be different isn’t a choice but a kind of incurable affliction, a source of existential crisis rather than social liberation.
There’s no alternative “lifestyle” for Holden Caulfield or the members of the Glass family to retreat to, as there is for the Beats, no group of like-minded adventurers. Salinger’s characters aren’t after thrills. Their quest is for an impossible purity that drives them away from the workaday world, toward a dangerous, self-burying seclusion. “We’re…freaks with freakish standards,” says Zooey Glass to his sister Franny. “We’re the Tattooed Lady, and we’re never going to have a minute’s peace, the rest of our lives, till everybody else is tattooed, too.”
Salinger’s subject is the burden of having these freakish standards, of being what Tolstoy called “an aristocrat of the spirit.” His freaks are the sort most people would envy—good-looking, witty, talented, well off. But they are paralyzed by their uncompromising sensibility. Franny, a gifted actress, abruptly quits the stage to seek the attainment of satori through repetitive, entrancing prayer. Acting embarrasses her. “I began to feel like such a nasty little egomaniac,” she tells her boyfriend. The boyfriend accuses her of behaving as if “you’re the only person in the world that’s got any goddam sense.” He wonders if maybe she’s afraid to compete. “It’s just the opposite,” says Franny.
Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete—that’s what scares me…. Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.
Effortlessly distinguished, Franny seems the furthest you can be from a nobody; in Salinger’s world this becomes the logical reason for wanting to be one.
Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is beset by a similar crisis of authenticity. It isn’t merely that most people are “phony”; the deeper problem is that sincerity itself …