Death of the Author
With J.D. Salinger, how can we separate the author from his writing? And now that he's dead, should we even try?
I have written about J.D. Salinger elsewhere in these pages, but his recent death prompts me to think about another angle: the myth of the Salinger-author. That Salinger was a recluse colors our reading of his work. What does Salinger’s decision to become a recluse mean to us? How does it contribute to our sense of him as an author? To authorship in general? An op-ed in The New York Times on February 1 suggests it represents a model of authorship unavailable to today’s hustling self-promoting writers. But it is more than this, surely.
Most come to Salinger with his biography—his half-century of silence—laid over the words like a palimpsest. We could not, of course. We could read the novel as a piece of writing untethered from the person who authored it. We could make meaning solely from the words, from the light paperback in our hands. Roland Barthes’s essay “Death of the Author” lays out this approach to reading: "Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing. Words, not the author who wrote them, should be our starting and ending points as readers." As soon as a fact is narrated, Barthes continues, "the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins."
So for a Barthesian, that Salinger chose to live for decades away from the madding crowds should not enter into our evaluation of his work. Yet most of us are not Barthesians, as Barthes himself noted: "The author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines. The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyranically centered on the author, her person, his life, his tastes, his passion. … The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it."
For whatever reasons (and those reasons are interesting and many), we want more. We crave a piece of the Salinger cross, to see inside that supposed vault of secret manuscripts, to have a private screening of the rumored five-minute surreptitious interview.
I bet Cornish, New Hampshire, will become a busier place than it is now, as more fans trek to find the house Salinger lived in, the diner he ate in, and the general store he bought his toilet paper in. I imagine the code of silence by which the town residents amazingly and touchingly abided will no longer need to be upheld.
People will go to Cornish to pay their respects, as literary pilgrims have done since the 15th century, when Petrach’s house was made into a tourist site, but they will also go to try to figure Salinger out, to tease out the wheres and wherefores of his decision to become a recluse. The myth of Salinger—by which I mean the recluse figure of our imaginations—will grow as a result.
So what will it be, if you are a Salinger fan? If you want to see where he lived for the past 50 years, hear more about his daily life, and read what he wrote at that town hall meeting—if you want, in other words, to pry into all those things Salinger so carefully kept from us—are you invading the privacy of your hero? Do we need to respect Salinger’s wishes for his life once he has died? Salinger protected his intellectual property as fiercely as he did his privacy, but he cannot protect what happens to his posthumous reputation.
"People coming & putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, & all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead?" Salinger wrote. This week, he is being strewn with bouquets of lovely tributes. What will we give him in the weeks and years to come? And what will it mean?
Illustration by Jo Tran.