Sunday, January 26, 2014


Tormented by War

           A whole generation was shaped by The Catcher in the RyeThat’s what I learned from the PBS special on J.D. Salinger, which aired January 21.
I hadn’t realized Salinger’s reach. I’d read the book, of course—several times, including for a college class. I felt the pain of the teenage misfit narrator, Holden Caulfield. But I was born five years before the first Boomers began arriving. They were the ones most mesmerized by Salinger’s work.
        I got to wondering, then, what made Salinger so influential that some people practically worship him? I knew he had a following, but until I saw the documentary I had no idea how much he is admired by students of modern lit.
       And though I knew he’d gone to war, I also had no idea that he’d endured an exceptionally long tour of duty at the front of some of the bloodiest battles of World War II. He came home a psychological wreck, suffering acutely from what we today call PTSD.
          In that frame of mind he wrote Catcher in the Rye and all that followed. Holden Caulfield’s disillusion with virtually all of modern, post-war society and its phony morality reflects Salinger’s ego-shattering war experiences.
         But what made a whole generation of young people identify so passionately with Holden Caulfield? America was, after all, victorious! We were the envy of the world at the end of World War II! What made the children think it was all phony, that our lifestyle was crass and mean?
           To approach that question, I can only compare the first years of my life with my sister’s. She’s a first-year Boomer, conceived in the womb as the war in Europe ended and the Holocaust became public, born just after the Bomb dropped. These atmospheric influences couldn’t fail to shape her emerging consciousness.
         I, on the other hand, was born over a year before Pearl Harbor. Though the war in Europe had already begun, a semblance of peacetime stability surrounded me, in the womb and after. The undreamed-of horrors of the coming war had not happened yet.
             At the same time, neither of our parents served in the war.
        My sister became a Civil Rights activist with a high resentment of unjust authority. I became a conscientious objector who escaped war altogether. The conditions surrounding our births shaped our destinies.
           Then what about the Boomers conceived by the returning troops, men like Salinger with huge horrors still playing in their heads? Is there a subconscious pattern, a gene passed on which remembers that, preparing the cultural soil for the emergence of the flower children?
           After the PBS documentary I came to see Salinger as a man running away in revulsion from war and all that created it. Like poet William Blake, he bitterly laments the plunge from innocence to experience that defines “growing up.” He lives in the world but rejects the world, identifying himself spiritually as a Vedantist.
          To me that says J.D. was an early hippy, an avatar of what my mother disparagingly called “the Peter-Pan generation” who never wanted to grow up and eventually drifted from the magic of psychedelic drugs into mystical religion. Where, it must be added—like Salinger—they found some solace
         Yet the savagery of war continues, despite the sickness it both produces and fosters in its warriors. Depression, suicide, rape, domestic rage—we hear these things leaking out of the military all the time. But we hear a lot less about the causes behind the behavior.
          Salinger speaks for those warriors wounded by their terrifying encounters with uncivilized horror. His hope lies in protecting the innocence of the children. Those children are the Boomers.
          Salinger’s dead now, of course—withdrawn from our material plane. But he’ll continue to haunt us with posthumous works, to be published in sequence over the next few years. And the psyche he passes on—tormented by war—has become at last an acknowledged illness in a country at war too much.
            That’s some kind of progress.


At 3:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


I too saw the American Masters presentation.

I had never read Catcher until I was a much older man, and found that I was not impressed by the book, perhaps, on reflection, attributable to age.

I also believe J.D. was deeply affected by WWII, but also feel he had wanted,as many of us do, the admiration of those he held in high esteem (The New Yorker, I believe). When he finally got it, he (rightly) concluded that it hadn't been worth it.

The much later hero worship only added to his angst.

Hope to see you soon.

Other D.


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