J. D. Salinger, author of "The Catcher in the Rye," is about to receive more attention than he's seen in decades.
Salinger, who died in 2010, is the subject of a biography and documentary, both released this week. Because Salinger sympathetically explores the frustration and alienation of an adolescent first entering the “phony” adult world, it is easy to see why "The Catcher in the Rye" took off the way it did. For generations, teenage readers have felt that the book’s narrator Holden Caulfield is speaking directly to them, and it remains one of the most widely read books of all time, selling over 65 million copies since its 1951 publication. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that "The Catcher in the Rye" has completely eclipsed the remainder of Salinger’s narrow body of work. Despite publishing two other novels and several short stories, Salinger's career was an unmistakable downhill ride after the huge success of his first book. Salinger has been forced into a distinctly Holden Caulfield-shaped box since 1951, a fate very few people would wish upon anyone. And that’s a shame, because Salinger spent his entire literary career attempting to answer the questions that "Catcher" only begins to ask.
Take his 1961 novella "Franny and Zooey," for example. The book depicts the nervous breakdown of Franny Glass, a college student struggling to define herself while surrounded by self-aggrandizing would-be intellectuals like her boyfriend Lane, who just can't seem to stop talking about his incredible essay on Flaubert.
Salinger’s best writing is about characters at crossroads, who are paralyzed and unable to do anything but ask why they've been forced to choose a path in the first place. He explores their frustration with touching sincerity. “I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. Sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody,” Franny confides in the reader.
In the oftentimes harsh, meritocratic environment of university life, maybe that’s a lesson we could all use: It takes courage, and a lot of it, to be happy with who you are. That’s something Holden Caulfield never got to learn in "Catcher," and it’s just one of the reasons why the obscurity of Salinger’s other work is so tragic. So to celebrate the release of "Salinger" this Friday, give one of his lesser-known books a read.