When comedian George Carlin died in the summer of 2008, I literally wept. Carlin, through his satire, was teaching the world so many things about its and his own disorder. I watched in my lifetime a man admired from a young age become slowly and bitterly consumed by his own fears about society.
His last popular release, "Life is Worth Losing," made light of the breakdown of society and suicide. I was working in West Chester that summer when I heard the news, and I just broke down. It was like tracing back the moments of a train wreck. There's no prevention, there is no pretending and there is no peace about it. Through his work, Carlin instilled in me the instinct to notice when things fall apart.
When author J.D. Salinger died last month, in my mind, I collapsed. It was as if a lifelong friend had died. Salinger was a catalyst in the world of literature, the means by which I and many others have surrendered to a love of books and words. Perhaps even the means by which we all use literature now to see the world around us.
Those familiar with the Manhattan-born author will recognize this quote from his most popular novel, "The Catcher in the Rye" - "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though."
It's been six years since I had a copy of the book in my hand and I still clumsily trace over of these words in my head from time to time. It's a toss up between irony and self-fulfilled prophecy.
Salinger, a 32-year-old man at the time he wrote his masterpiece, was settling back into a post-war ethic discovering ideas of Zen and peace in Buddhist philosophy. He must have done a lot of inward reflection to animate Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of the novel.
Caulfield's character is likely the embodiment of what Salinger had learned to despise during World War II and what he gleaned from the teachings of D.T. Suzuki, a notable figure in Buddhism during the earlier part of the 20th century. Caulfield becomes a commentary on Salinger's own conflicts with all the young toughs wrought by the aristocratic fathers and military families of his day.
His idea of becoming friends with the book is almost anthemic. It's the standard that most writers, philosophers and cynics can only hope to attain. It's the dharma of all people looking to communicate big ideas to another human being.
Along with the works of Hemingway, Salinger's literature is a railway to an America of my father's time; an America that has faded into the blurs of black and white in old photographs. I'm talking about the America that brought up a 20-something Bob Dylan, Hunter S. Thompson, John Updike and Tom Wolfe. The same America of Eisenhower, the Rosenbergs, and of less obvious secrets - the America of John Coltrane and the pre-Kennedy era.
That America was still ripe with the mysticism of Old New York and an Ellis Island with its gates still wide, before the influence of European customs had faded into the dust of post-war victory parades. A New York filled with the contention of first-generation Americans crammed into the Lower East Side and of Chinatowns not yet Westernized. It's the New York Martin Scorsese dreams about, but can't capture in a single film.
Salinger returned from the war to this world, searching for peace and answers. It's the type of world in which the principles of conviction and discipline came into direct conflict with the social tensions of the time. Cold War bitterness is evident. The fears of blacklisting and nuclear holocaust are prevalent and acrid realities.
That America is what drove the mind of a man like Salinger.
"The Catcher in the Rye" is a book that has passed through the hands of students, scholars, malcontents and murderers. Looking into Salinger's world, it's no wonder the questions of identity and belonging arise. A book like this asks questions and cuts deep - it confuses and consoles. It becomes the friend you ask for at the end of reading it.
After leaving such a legacy in one shot, a hermit of 91 who died in his home of natural causes must have felt some level of fulfillment. Salinger found what the rest of us all dream of finding: peace of mind. Once his work was written, his commitment to the world was finished. He had created the friend he saw literature needed to be, and he was free to surrender to the enlightenment he was seeking.
Like Carlin, Salinger taught us things about society that we might not have learned otherwise. But unlike Carlin, he wasn't consumed by his collective fears and anxieties. Instead, he sought the freedom to live life on his own terms.
In that respect, perhaps, there's still a lot from Salinger that we need to learn.
Charles Peters is a Sentinel correspondent.