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  Cup o' Joel  

JD Salinger is dead. His being overrated, though, is immortal.

I always liked the idea of JD Salinger more than I liked anything that Salinger wrote. Franny and Zooey was ok, I guess, but Catcher in the Rye is massively overrated. Generations of literary hipsters have named their children “Holden” because they saw Catcher’s protagonist as the ideal; an authentic James Dean type, maybe, railing against the phoniness of modern life.

Me: When I got around to reading the book at age 17 — during my year of reading classic novels that were often banned — I simply couldn’t believe what a whiny sonofabitch the kid was. I don’t think it’s because I had the soul of a College Republican; I was reading books like Johnny Got His Gun, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five that year and they were greatly influencing me. I just think that Holden Caufield was a whiny sonofabitch. Which makes me suspicious of all those who idolize him.

Salinger, of course, withdrew from public life after Catcher. The glimpses we got of him over the intervening decades were not flattering; he apparently had a pretty creepy sex life. But there’s something fascinating and inspirational about an artist who produces One Great Work and gives it to the world, then hides himself forevermore. Too bad the reality of JD Salinger could never, ever live up to the hype.

Rest in peace, you old bastard.

  1. Charles Says: Jan 28 2:35 PM

    This blog is a waste of space.

  2. Nick Says: Jan 28 2:36 PM

    It’s a tragedy that you are so concerned with success and driven forth by ignorance. If you understood the role of an artist as the Tao te Ching states, a true artist does his work then steps back. The role of an artist, like Salinger, is not to gain fame and fortune but to see the flaws and the aspects of society which we dilute in everyday life. Salinger wrote to create an American Vernacular, he knew how to control form and content to make you feel a certain way. Obviously you desired a certain feeling and Catcher made you uncomfortable. Intelligence is not seeking out everything that is comfortable and safe but things that are dangerous and full of disguised squalor. Salinger was the last great American Poet, do not insult his importance to literature.

  3. Notorious Ph.D. Says: Jan 28 2:37 PM

    “When I got around to reading the book at age 17 — during my year of reading classic novels that were often banned — I simply couldn’t believe what a whiny sonofabitch the kid was.”

    Oh my, yes. Joel, you just summed up my reaction when I had to read this for Junior English in high school. I just didn’t see why I should care about this guy and his teen angst — and I *was* an angsty teen! For me, also, part of it, though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, was the flatness of his female characters.

    You know, if I could believe that Salinger was deliberately trying to create a portrait of the narcissism of upper-class white male youth, I could tolerate it better (much in the same way I’ve learned to tolerate, though not like, Lolita). But I don’t believe that, not really.

  4. S Vanbenscoten Says: Jan 28 2:38 PM

    Salinger hated the world. So he decided to shun it and live alone in hopes that it would supplicate to him. I guess it didn’t work. Great writer, bad life. He will live on through his writings.


  5. Keif Says: Jan 28 2:55 PM

    This is written by someone who can’t be anything better than a blogger or, a loser in the world of writing. So take it as it is.

  6. Bryan Says: Jan 28 3:00 PM


  7. Steve Says: Jan 28 3:00 PM

    Joel, you just strike me as somebody who thinks he’s funny, but isn’t; thinks he’s irreverent, but is really irrelevant and, ironically enough, someone who’s just a whiny sonofabitch, but just not as well written a whiny sonofabitch as Holden Caulfield. I would say the main reason you have to claim J.D. Salinger, and no doubt countless others like him, are overrated is because you remain completely unrated. No one knows who you are–and no one cares. Let that be the last thought you have tonight before you drift off to sleep.

  8. Joel Mathis Says: Jan 28 3:08 PM

    …and yet, you care enough to respond.

  9. Whyster Says: Jan 28 3:35 PM

    to plagerize Dorothy Parker;

    Who call him spurious and Shoddy
    Shall do it o’er my lifeless body.
    I heartily invite such birds
    To come outside and say those words!

  10. brendancalling Says: Jan 28 3:37 PM

    wow, those are some pretty dickish commenters you have there: has no one ever heard the statement “there’s no accounting for taste”?

    Silly commenters too: “If you understood the role of an artist as the Tao te Ching states, a true artist does his work then steps back.” the tao te ching verse you refer to is a LOT deeper and much more complicated than the simplistic reading Nick offers: by this reading you’re saying that Picasso, Vonnegut, and myriad others are not true artists because they didn’t become recluses? it is to laugh. No, the role of an artist is to create art and, if he or she is talented and lucky enough, to make a living at it.

    as for me, i quite liked “catcher”, even if Holden IS a bit of a whiney-ass titty baby. i mean, wtf, he’s an alienated teenager. If anything, CITR was a welcome break from the utter horseshit my teachers assigned, like “A Separate Peace” and other novels that were supposed to… well teach me something or other.
    So yeah, i don’t exactly agree with your take on JD Salinger joel, but hey, to each his own.

  11. Steve Says: Jan 28 3:41 PM

    And since you responded to me within 8 minutes, I’d say the old blog isn’t exactly keeping you hopping these days. I think I have your type pegged, but let me make sure. You also hate ‘The Godfather’, never understood what was the big deal about The Beatles, and would never live in San Diego because you can’t stand the weather. In high school you couldn’t be bothered with the prom, but couldn’t stop looking at the clock from 8:00 – 12:00 that night. Does that about sum it up there Blog Boy?

  12. Kim Callahan Says: Jan 28 3:42 PM

    “Catcher in the Rye is massively overrated.”

    Jesus. That is the dumbest thing I have ever said you say, with all due respect.

    If you don’t personally like it, fine, but to say that it’s overrated (meaning what, precisely?) …

    Since when do we judge literary masterpieces by the effect that they had on adolescent boys?

  13. Kim Callahan Says: Jan 28 3:47 PM

    I mean, it would be like my saying I read “Moby Dick” when I was a kid and thought Ishmael was just pathetic (pathetic compared with myself, of course, because what else would the comparison be with?) Or I read Jane Austen in junior high and had no idea what all the fuss was about.


  14. Bhan Bhan Says: Jan 28 3:47 PM

    I bet more people would admit to finding Catcher In The Rye uninspiring if they weren’t worried about the backlash against their intelligence and credentials for justifying their beliefs aloud.

    I do respect a man who can walk away when he knows he’s done, though.

  15. Notorious Ph.D. Says: Jan 28 3:58 PM

    Actually, as silly as the ad hominem attacks on this thread are, Kim has a point: most of us read CitR as teenagers. Would we get more out of it now, I wonder? Or would those of us who were annoyed by it then just be more annoyed by it, now that we’re older & crankier?

    Get the hell off my lawn, Holden!

  16. Joel Mathis Says: Jan 28 4:00 PM

    Kim: No, I’ve said far, far dumber things.

    When I say “overrated,” what I mean is I believe that the particular work is lauded far in excess of its actual quality or value. That’s not to deny ‘Catcher’ its place in history; Salinger helped invent the archetype of the disaffected anti-establishment hipster. He didn’t write the lines: “What are you rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” But that spirit certainly pervades his work … and entered the culture in a significant way because of him.

    That doesn’t mean the book is a good read.

    And we judge literary masterpieces by the effect they have on adolescent boys when *adolescent boys comprise one of the main audiences for the so-called masterpiece.* Generations of 17-year-old boys — and, uh, I’m pretty sure it was mostly boys — *made* the book a classic, after all. If we discounted their opinions, we wouldn’t even be talking about ‘Catcher’ as part of any kind of literary canon, I’m willing to wager.

    Steve: You’re being silly. I don’t like something that you like. It’s a difference in taste. Big deal. Tell me why I should like what you like — I’ve told you why I don’t like it — instead of insulting me. You’re not really making an argument. You’re just being a troll. I bet you can do better.

  17. Joel Mathis Says: Jan 28 4:02 PM

    And, uh, Kim: Am I supposed to wait until I’m 40 to have an opinion about the books I read? Now who’s being silly?

  18. brendancalling Says: Jan 28 4:14 PM

    @joel 17: kim actually has a point. when i first read Vonnegut (i was 16 or 17, i forget which book it was), the blurb on the back promised “a hilarious romp with that trademark Vonnegut humor”, and what i read was grim and depressing. What was so funny? I never wanted to read THAT crap again.

    A few years later, a few years wiser and more life experience, i gave Kurt another shot, and found exactly what was so funny. I’ve been a huge fan ever since.

    which is a long way of saying “tastes can change”.

  19. Joel Mathis Says: Jan 28 4:24 PM

    Absolutely tastes can change. I like some books more now than I originally did. I like some books (and other pieces of culture) less than I did 20 years ago.

    In fact, part of the reason I described my initial encounter with ‘Catcher’ as coming when it did was because I thought it made more sense to understand where I was at, as a reader, when I first thought Holden Caufield was a whiny sonofabitch rather than just assert it and leave it hanging. You can’t objectively experience literature — you bring your own experiences (or lack of) to it.

    But like I said, 17-year-old boys comprise one of the main audiences for this book. It’s patronizing, to say the least, to suggest that experience of reading Salinger is somehow invalid.

  20. Ben Boychuk Says: Jan 28 4:26 PM

    Well, I think you are all a bunch of goddam phonies, if you want to know the truth.

    Captcha: before livened

  21. Steve Says: Jan 28 4:44 PM

    You may not like the Catcher in the Rye or Salinger for that matter, but you have acknowledged that the book and, in some cases, the author have had a profound impact on many. The response to this blog and the fact that we’re still talking about a work published 59 years ago is just further proof of that. With all that in mind, your ending the blog with ‘Rest in peace, you old bastard’ the day after the guy died was in poor taste and in doing so you were just asking for trouble.

    One final thing that I would like to say is that over the years I have seen very little mention of Salinger’s time served in WW II. Over the coming days I am sure we’ll see the words ‘recluse’, ‘eccentric’ and ‘hermit’ quite a bit, but few will attempt to provide an explanation why this talented writer became synonymous with these terms. Most people don’t know that Salinger saw action in two of the bloodiest battles of the war. He fought on Utah Beach at Normandy on D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge being one of only a handful of his company to survive. In addition, Salinger encountered the concentration camp as well as prisoners at Dachau. He was later hospitalized in Nuremberg for extreme stress before being granted an honorary discharge.

    In later years, especially after Vietnam, we came to more fully understand the hellish toll participating in such wars can have on an individual. I’m quite sure the memories never left him. So even though Salinger never offered this as an excuse, or for that matter offered anything as an excuse for his behavior, in the course of the next week or so it might be a good idea to keep it in mind and give the guy the benefit of the doubt.

  22. Kim Callahan Says: Jan 28 5:06 PM

    Joel, you are perfectly free to have any opinion you like. But you are not just stating you’re own opinion. You are not simply saying, “I don’t care for this book.” You’re saying that it’s overrated, which is a judgment on the opinions of millions of people around the world.

    Any why, for God’s sake, would you take the occasion of a man’s death to essentially say that man’s work was overrated and everyone who liked his work is an object of “suspicion”? He’s dead, for Christ’s sake, and many people who are grateful for his unique contribution to American Letters are fucking sad about that.

    Have some decency.

    You’d think that as someone who professes to be a writer that you’d be a little more appreciative of what goes into the writing life.

  23. Joel Mathis Says: Jan 28 5:16 PM

    “You’re saying that it’s overrated, which is a judgment on the opinions of millions of people around the world.”

    Well sure. It’s kind of implicit, though, that if I say I don’t like the book that I think those millions of people are wrong? Why not just come out and say it instead of pussyfooting?

    “He’s dead, for Christ’s sake, and many people who are grateful for his unique contribution to American Letters are fucking sad about that.”

    Well, and perhaps I could’ve been more sensitive. But we’re talking about JD Salinger, whose most iconic character was forever railing against “phoniness.” So, you know…

    “You’d think that as someone who professes to be a writer that you’d be a little more appreciative of what goes into the writing life.”

    Well, hell, I won’t ever claim that my writing experience approaches Salinger’s. He was a WRITER and I’m whatever I am, which isn’t nearly the same thing. But knowing that it’s hard work to write a novel doesn’t make the novel good. I LOVE the documentary about the making of “The Phantom Menace” — it’s truly amazing all the work and vision that went into the making of that movie. But “The Phantom Menace” still sucks. And it’ll still suck the day George Lucas dies.

  24. Kim Callahan Says: Jan 28 5:23 PM

    Yes, you are no Salinger. And you still won’t be on the day you die.

    But I’m sure until then that you can make a living by shitting on people (and their millions of fans) on the day they die.

  25. Joel Mathis Says: Jan 28 5:29 PM

    “Yes, you are no Salinger. And you still won’t be on the day you die.”

    I think it’s hysterically funny that I’m supposed to be insulted by this.

  26. Kim Callahan Says: Jan 28 5:35 PM

    You’re just driving up your comments.

  27. Steve Says: Jan 28 5:38 PM

    I think the real problem here is that the things you think are hysterically funny, including yourself, are not really very funny at all.

  28. J-tizzle Says: Jan 28 6:19 PM

    … Nerd fight!

  29. Joel Mathis Says: Jan 28 6:20 PM

    My final thought — and then everybody can have the last word: What nobody here has done is tell me WHY I should like JD Salinger or ‘Catcher in the Rye.’

    “Lots of people like it” is not an argument for the book’s quality.

    “You’re no JD Salinger” is not an argument for the book’s quality.

    “Writing books is hard” is not an argument for the book’s quality.

    “You hurt my feelings because I like this book” is not an argument for the book’s quality.

    I’ve told you why I don’t like the book, but I’ll clarify and expand a little bit: I don’t like the main character. I find him completely unsympathetic — and I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to find him sympathetic. I think Holden Caufield inspired a hollow pose of rebellious “cool” that doesn’t mean anything but has been widely emulated in the culture since then. And I think, yeah, that it’s goofy that lots of people find substance in that callow stance.

    The best defense of the novel in my discussions today, actually, has come from other critics who suggest that maaaaaaybe Salinger was writing a satire on spoiled middle-class male entitlement. Nobody really believes that. But it’s more of an effort to defend ‘Catcher’ than any of the book’s ostensible defenders have mounted today.

    Instead, they’ve mostly lobbed a series of insults my way. Which, yes, I think is pretty funny. Because it’s *very* much like Holden Caufield to merely lash out without any accompanying meaning or substance. All that means, though, is that we’ve got better documentation in these parts about why I suck than why ‘Catcher in the Rye’ is any good.

    And that’s fine. It’s a lot easier to prove I suck than it is to argue that ‘Catcher in the Rye’ is any good.

  30. Keith Says: Jan 28 6:23 PM

    Hell hath no fury like a Freshman english class’s favorite author scorned.

    bath yardage

  31. Kim Callahan Says: Jan 28 6:33 PM

    You don’t get it. No one gives a shit whether YOU like “Catcher in the Rye.” No one is trying to force you to like the book or the author. THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU.

    This is about respecting an icon of American letters on the day that he died and the millions of people to whom he meant a great deal. And the many people who are eminently more qualified than you to discourse on the quality of a piece of literature — and who can discuss the quality of that work without resorting to what they thought of it when they were a self-important teenage boy.

    I bet you salivated when you got news of his death. “Sweet! I can put on my blog how he’s overrated and that anyone who thinks to the contrary is ’suspicious.’ He meant an awful lot to an awful lot of human beings, but who gives a shit?! I’ll just take a huge dump on all those people on the day of his death!”

    Shame on you.

  32. Mchuge Says: Jan 28 8:35 PM

    Joel is entitled to his opinion – if you don’t agree with it, that’s fine, but there’s no need to insult him like a child. I’ve long said, even when he was living, that Salinger gained more fans due to his reclusiveness than his writing. Had he not decided to shut ou the world and instead continued to publish, I doubt his work would cause much of a stir nowdays. In essence the JD Salinger who wrote Catcher in the Rye died sometime in the 1960’s and because of his early “death” he’s become more revered. See Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison as examples. In essence Salinger holing himself up in Cornish for 30 years has done for his what dying did for numerous other “artists” works. I happen to agree somewhat with Joel, that while Salinger was a decent writer, I wouldn’t put him up in the same top tier of 20th century writers as Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov or Aldous Huxley. He’s a second tier guy, with one great work, like Jack Kerouac or Truman Capote.

  33. Ben Says: Jan 28 8:38 PM

    CitR was a great book. But Salinger was a huge disappointment. Well, let me take that back until we know if he left a treasure trove of writing behind. If he didn’t, then he’s really is a pussy.

  34. Mchuge Says: Jan 28 8:39 PM

    Nontheless, may he rest in peace. I may yet be proven wrong. We all might. Perhaps tucked away in his house (who wouldn’t give their left arm to get to see what treaures are inside??) is the next great American novel.

    Or perhaps he spent 50 years writing “All work and no play makes John a dull boy”! Wouldn’t that be the ultimate “fuck you” to the world from Salinger. Who knows!? But I can’t wait to find out.

  35. Keif Says: Jan 29 2:05 PM

    This blogger is just another Perez Hiton wannabe. He knew he’d piss people off by witing that. How else will he get people to visit his page?

  36. fromTheOnion Says: Jan 29 10:03 PM

    CORNISH, NH—In this big dramatic production that didn’t do anyone any good (and was pretty embarrassing, really, if you think about it), thousands upon thousands of phonies across the country mourned the death of author J.D. Salinger, who was 91 years old for crying out loud. “He had a real impact on the literary world and on millions of readers,” said hot-shot English professor David Clarke, who is just like the rest of them, and even works at one of those crumby schools that rich people send their kids to so they don’t have to look at them for four years. “There will never be another voice like his.” Which is exactly the lousy kind of goddamn thing that people say, because really it could mean lots of things, or nothing at all even, and it’s just a perfect example of why you should never tell anybody anything.

  37. Chris Says: Jan 30 2:32 AM

    Wow. Piggybacking on celebrity death to generate controversy hits. Stellar.

    I assume you have some degree of self-esteem. This is also the degree to which you yourself are overrated. Fortunately, though, this is quite mortal.

    Have a nice ride.

  38. Josh Says: Feb 4 5:36 PM

    So I heard you took a lot of crap for this article. Not here to give you any crap, I appreciate you exercising your free speech, but I have to disagree. It reminds me of a Francis Bacon exhibit I saw in New York last summer. After a whole exhibit discussing his influence on other artists, and his popularity in his time, there was a book to write comments in at the end. One woman wrote “I just don’t get why a man like this is so important.” People have the wrong view of what “influence” is, its a rather objective thing. Salinger isn’t important just because of his writing, he is a classic because of the way he impacted the latter half of the 20th century. You may hate his books and his books may very well be overrated by hipsters. But he influenced a whole generation of writers, most of them children when his books came out, and many of them went on to become award winning masters of their craft. And thats just authors he influenced. In short, his influence and his importance are derived not from his work, but from its impact. And that is real, whether you liked his books or not.

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