Because of J. D. Salinger, Unlikely as It Seems

J.D. Salinger died yesterday at the age of 91 and, full disclosure, I’ve never read The Catcher in the Rye. Nor have I bothered getting detailed autobiographical information on Mr. Salinger. I can only say that his work had an effect on my prayer life, thus proving once again, to me anyway, that God continues to work through the secular in unexpected ways.

I was a new Catholic, and interested in deepening my prayer life. I was reading a book on contemplative prayer, Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird. The author mentioned Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey. F&Z is another of Salinger’s novels that documents the triumphs and travails of the Glass family. Published as short stories in The New Yorker (Franny in 1955 and Zooey in 1957), then put together as one, the book was published in 1961.

If you want a synopsis of this novel, you can easily find many. All I can say is that through Laird, I first learned of The Jesus Prayer, and through Salinger I saw an application of its use and received another lead to a great book which truly had the impact on my prayer life that I was seeking: The Way of a Pilgrim (author anonymous).

Salinger is an enigma to us today and has been for over 40 years. He “dropped out,” fled the world. He was a recluse whom the world didn’t seem to understand. Why did you flee? You had it all J.D.! Why did you not take advantage of your gift? Why did you stop sharing it with us? These seem to me to be much the same circumstances that inspired the Desert Fathers and Mothers to flee the world as well. Perhaps, like them, J.D. figured the world out and decided to become a hermit.

In the past, this kind of behavior was understood to be rational for holy men and women. In the East, it is more appreciated and understood. In the West, it is cause for consternation, contempt,  and a judgment by society that you are not a good steward of your talents.

In the next few days, weeks, and months, narratives will be spun that will allege to unveil the mystery of J.D.’s life. Perhaps new brilliant works will be unearthed that will inspire a new age to continue to wonder, “What the hell am I doing here?” Stay tuned.

So for J.D. Salinger, ascetic hermit, misunderstood by the world, and for all we really know, a holy man, I thank you for sharing your gifts with us until you couldn’t bear to do so any longer. And here is a simple prayer that I think J.D. might appreciate:

Lord Jesus Christ, Holy Son of the Father, have mercy on the soul of your child, J. D. Salinger.

We may never know if he whispered the Jesus Prayer as his character Franny did while he lay dying. The world may find only that J. D. is “a riddle, wrapped up in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Only time will tell. But he reached at least one soul, and probably countless others, sowing seeds for the name of Our Lord, even if he really wasn’t a party to it.

The Lord works in mysterious ways. Thanks be to God.

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33 Responses to Because of J. D. Salinger, Unlikely as It Seems

  1. Mandrivnyk says:

    Wonderful post. It's funny, isn't it? How we can find God in the most unlikely of places? A major step in my own conversion happened when a rather anti-Catholic professor introduced me to St. Augustine. In a very tangential sense, I'm reminded of a Newman quote I came across the other day (from his semon on "The Greatness and Littleness of Human Life":"To those who live by faith, every thing they see speaks of that future world; the very glories of nature, the sun, moon, and stars, and the richness and the beauty of the earth, are as types and figures witnessing and teaching the invisible things of God. All that we see is destined one day to burst forth into a heavenly bloom, and to be transfigured into immortal glory."Cheers,Mandrivnyk


  2. Webster Bull says:

    I've read Catcher, Franny, Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters, most of the tiny oeuvre. Not sure what to think now. I gather that young people reading Holden Caulfield's story today think, "What a jerk!" I'd like to read Catcher again to appreciate this perspective. It makes me wonder if we Boomers, run through the countercultural mill of the 60s, weren't a bunch of jerks. Salinger was most revered when he wrote these things for the New Yorker and the NY was at the height of its influence under editor WIlliam Shawn. Might be a case of America being snowed by the "right-thinking" media. Can't imagine that happening, can you?Joyce Maynard was a "fac brat" hanging around my boarding school in the late 1960s. She wrote a letter to Salinger, moved in with him in 1973 or so, then wrote the usual tell-all memoir about it 25 years later. Didn't read it. Maybe someone else did? But I bet it sheds light on JDS and the questions you ask about him.No matter what, Frank, this is a thoughtful post not about Salinger but about the Holy Spirit. Thanks.


  3. Janet says:

    I read all of Salinger in college. F&Z; was my favorite and had a similar influence on me. Joseph Bottums has a great piece on First Things that's mostly a quote from F&Z.;


  4. Ted says:

    Great post Frank. Regarding Salinger's reclusive ways, I can honestly say some of my most pleasant moments in life have been walking through the woods in the mountains alone. I'd like to see an atheist spend the night in a tent, alone in the wilderness, and tell me he was still an atheist after the experience. Rest in Peace J.D.


  5. MUJERLATINA says:

    @Webster: Interesting comment on one of my favorite books: The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues on his Way. I have read and re-read this book (it's on 'my shelf') since college. I vivdly recall lending it to a non-Catholic friend who, despite his intellectual and Christian evangelical zeal, returned the book stating: "I don't get it." My friend could not understand how compelling the repetition of the Jesus Prayer for the pilgrim was — nor how this hermit's praying of the prayer opened not only his interior life, but also the hospitality of those whom he met along the way! Since you have been writing on the Rosary recently Webster,I'm wondering if you have ever prayed the Eastern Orthodox "Chotki?" Carmella from Laude Arts and Gifts writes:"Chotki is the Greek term given to Jesus beads. Chotki can have as many as 150 beads and as few as 10 beads or almost any number in between. I personally like Chotki that have 33 beads. It is easy to pray the Jesus prayer 100 times, which is the most common form of the prayer, by going around the Chotki 3 times and then adding one more prayer. I also like it because the 33 beads symbolize the 33 years that Jesus was on this earth." The Chotki is likely the early Church's first Rosary. Pray the Family Chotki today!


  6. Webster Bull says:

    I have not prayed the Chotki. Sounds like a new product for Clay Rosary Girl!


  7. Frank says:

    Thanks guys. This is another instance where the daily readings prompted me as well:Jesus said to the crowds:This is how it is with the Kingdom of God;it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and dayand the seed would sprout and grow,he knows not how. Mark 4: 26-27


  8. Frank says:

    @BonesThe Way of a Pilgrim and it's sequel are definitely one of the books that I would want with me if I was stuck on a desert island. I wrote Webster when I first posted it that I have shared it with my Mom, one of my aunts and now, with the greater YIMC community too. We few, we happy few…


  9. MUJERLATINA says:

    @ Frank: I did not realize that you had posted on this book!! I will dig back in your posts to see what you said. I agree, the book is mesmorizing, and it reads like the Jesus Prayer itself. When did you post on this? How about you write a "Because of the Jesus Prayer…" post? It is really a boon to have found other Catholics who know so much about the 'obscurata' of the faith. I mean, how many colleagues or friends do you know who cherish the Jesus Prayer and have both The Way of the Pilgrim and Robert Coles' The Spiritual Life of Children on their bookshelf? My 'obscurata' has found a home in YIMC!! Pax Christi.


  10. MUJERLATINA says:

    Oops!! Sorry Frank. I ascribed the above post to Webster. Please forgive me. But I would like a further post on The Jesus Prayer from the former-Evangelical-perspective.


  11. Frank says:

    Relax Bones…all is well. And I haven't done a post on the Pilgrim yet…but stay tuned. ;^)


  12. Ferde says:

    I read most of Salinger in the mid-60s, then started imitating him. I wrote two pretty good one-act plays which were produced in a Lincoln Center workshop. It was shamelessly easy to copy him so I gave it up.F&Z; got me going on 'The Jesus Prayer' too. Still say it when I don't know what I'm doing, which is most of the time.


  13. Sandy says:

    I loved your story. How close it is to the "real" J. D., we'll never know. I know the tell all mentioned above was not entirely flattering, nor the portrait painted by his daughter. I saw the same parallels you did, to the going away to write for one's self, the pure devotion or ascetic retreat from the world.


  14. Frank says:

    Ferde,Thanks! You will have to show me those over a beer one day.


  15. Frank says:

    Sandy, Thanks. It will be interesting to see what comes to light. I figure the "insiders stories" aren't exactly unbiased. Time will tell.


  16. El Bollio Tejano says:

    Webster wrote about Holden Caulfield: "…"What a jerk!" I'd like to read Catcher again to appreciate this perspective. It makes me wonder if we Boomers, run through the countercultural mill of the 60s, weren't a bunch of jerks. I have read Catcher in the Rye 3 times. Once in the early 1980's, once in 1993 and again in 2005. Growing up in a variety of Private schools a having hit the age to read books of the "prep school" prescribed reading list in the early eighties, I have to scratch my head on J. D. Salenger being a great reason of YIM Catholic. Having read both A Separate Peace by John Knowels and A Catcher in The Rye at about the same time in my academic life, I have to say that Salenger was the farthest thing from a Catholic writer in "Rye" than anything. I often look back at this book as the quentessential book that must be read by young prep schoolers to show the mind of a very disturbed young man and in turn, make young students question, parents, schools, authority and even their own family. Holden hates everybody. In Contrast, A Separate Peace, is a much more Roman Catholic book. In Knowels classic work, there is Pride, Envy, Guilt, Sin, Forgiveness, etc. It is in fact a book that haunts the reader of the very problems of evil. Evil is even more gripping in A Separate Peace because it is between best friends and happens in a brief instant, but has horrific consequences. If you look Catcher in The Rye, it is a book that has a sense that there is no order and that a young man can have all of these amazing adventures if he elects to reject the "system". Most youth read this book, and think that "this is not me". But it has a subtle disturbing quality, introducing a disordered protagonist as a main character.To me, growing up around Roman Catholic architecture, culture and neighbors, it was like reading about life on Mars. I think that is why I have gone back twice to see if I missed something.I did not. The book "Catcher in theRye" is garbage compared to "A Separate Peace."I did notice this last time that Holden Caulfield says "G*d D*mn" in almost every breath. Not very Catholic and perhaps a sin?There is only one cuss word in a Separate Peace and it is appropriately placed and not gratuitous.Finally, In a Catcher in the Rye, if you remember, Holden meets two nuns who try to help him while he is wondering the streets of New York. Not sure if you remember this part, but what Holden says about the Nuns, and the Roman Catholic Church makes me not agree with you… J D Salenger… not a good choice for YIM Catholic.EBT I did not. The book "Rye" is garbage compared to a Separate Peace.Co


  17. Maria says:

    Oh Holden and Phoebe et al… Thanks Frank.


  18. bt says:

    I never had to read it.


  19. Webster Bull says:

    @ Mujerlatina, When we went to the new format so that readers can see more posts at a glance, we removed the clunky "Posted by Webster (or Frank") at the top because that info is given immediately beneath the opening paragraph–until you "jump" to the full piece that is, at which point the byline jumps to the end of the whole piece. Sorry for the confusion. @ El Bollio Tejano,As for "Catcher" not being a good choice for YIMC, I got the same sort of comment when I posted on Brideshead Revisited a few months back. George Weigel raves about Brideshead, but I was criticized by readers because it features a (discretely veiled) homosexual relationship. So is that "a good choice for YIMC"? Of course, we can debate these things all day long, but they miss the point of YIMC. As I have moved from childhood through a troubled adolescence to what I hope is very early adulthood with this blog, I realize that it has an important subtext for Catholics and non-. When you are a committed Catholic living every day with your eyes open for Jesus Christ, EVERYTHING relates to THAT. The best book, the worst, the trashiest TV (best avoided anyway) and Masterpiece Theatre. Being Catholic is like walking around with a blazing torch in your hand, one that illuminates everything you encounter, at least for me. So everything is a good subject for YIMC, because Jesus Christ is everywhere, all the time. In Holden Caulfield as well as in Gene and Phineas of "A Separate Peace," which is, I agree, a wonderful novel.


  20. Janet says:

    Thank you EBT. I think what you say about the burning torch is so true. As for Brideshead, well, that is one of the most profoundly Catholic novels that was ever written. The sinful relationships, both hetero- and homosexual are incidental to the main theme of the book which is God's grace moving in the lives of the protagonist and the Flyte family. The heroine of Brideshead is the Catholic Church. The whole plot centers around a quote from Chesterton. Waugh was a convert, and BR is, in a way, his apologia for his conversion. The current movie, btw, is not faithful to the book.If anyone is interested, there is a wonderful discussion about Brideshead here:


  21. Janet says:

    Oh, I see it was Webster who said that about the torch. Sorry, it was Webster I was responding too. AMDG


  22. El Bollio Tejano says:

    Very well stated Webster. Especially what you say about the torch. I watched Fletch the other night with the family. Not a "catholic" movie but some of the greatest lines and shinanigans ever on screen. Now that is the "classic" that sophmores and sixth form students need to be spending time in school watching instead of Catcher in the Rye.Having said that… Isn't Ferris Bueller's day off an adaptation of "a Catcher in the Rye?" The difference between Ferris Bueller and Holden Caufield is that Ferris sees BEAUTY in everything about life and Holden does not. Isn't Cameron more representitive of the Holden character, depressed and not wanting to go to school. Might not Ferris Bueller be the Urs Von Balthasar or Joseph Ratzinger type, the one who sees life as joy-filled, hopeful, and full of BEAUTY?Choate, St. Georges and St. Paul should have classes that read both "Catcher in the Rye" and "Ferris Bueller" and we might get some kids who see the world be more joy filled and caring in about 20 years.


  23. Webster Bull says:

    El BT (sorry, but I can't help thinking "BLT"), You may be stretching the rubber band a bit far connecting Ferris Bueller to Holden Caulfield. When did Holden ever have fun like Ferris? And Ferris Bueller = Hans Urs von Balthasar???? That there rubber band has snapped, brother!! 🙂


  24. Frank says:

    "Being Catholic is like walking around with a blazing torch in your hand, one that illuminates everything you encounter", which is why I haven't really explored anything in the Christian contemporary genre. Too little time.And hey Skipper, and El BT, take the debate outside. El BT(careful, I might start calling you "white bread") you read CiR three times??? Sheesh. 😉


  25. jbalconi says:

    I read "Catcher" because it was a theme (and Salinger a supporting character) in "Shoeless Joe" (the movie was "Field of Dreams"). I didn't understand why the Boomer characters were so passionate about it. I still don't. To me, it seems like they misread it. A few years ago, "Catcher" was one of the texts in sophomore English. I would ask the question, "Is he a rebel?" and the responses were almost invariably "no"; "he's a wannabe"; "he's a slacker"; "he needs psychiatric help"; etc. Students who loved the book, loved it because they pitied Holden. They felt that if his brother Allie hadn't died (and without the subsequent suicide/manslaughter at the prep school), he might have been a decent person and not so emotionally stunted. Those who hated Holden usually commented about how he lied to himself more than anyone. The "fun" parts of his stay in NYC were at his expense, like when he kept seeing himself as "witty as hell" and a ladies' man, but the other characters' reactions show something closer to the truth.As for it being YIM Catholic reading, I remember laughing aloud when I read Holden's critique of his Catholic roommate. He says he hates that prep school Catholics try to secretly find out if someone else is Catholic. It reflected life in my WASPy hometown, were Catholics were (and sometimes still are) a mistrusted minority. Holden's interaction with the nuns was benign.


  26. Janet says:

    I have to say that I'm a bit amused that we seem to be having this discussion about why CitR is not a suitable book for discussion on YIM, and in doing so, we are having the discussion that we don't think is suitable. ;-)AMDG


  27. Frank says:

    I think it's a riot LOL. I never read CiR and probably never will. F&Z; people, F&Z;! However, the discussion has been, and continues to be, very suitable. Good stuff!


  28. Anonymous says:

    It is not really surprising how we find God in the most unlikely places because — He ALWAYS meets us where we are … Remember, He went out of his way (not the regular route Jews took between Judea and Galilee) and HAD to go through Samaria … SO he could meet the woman at the well … SO she could tell her whole village about Him (John 4:4-30, and 4:39-42)


  29. Webster Bull says:

    Beautiful comment, Anonymous 5:10PM,This is the message of the organization Communion and Liberation. Christ is a Presence today, not 2000 years ago alone. He is coming to meet us. We may have to open the door. Thanks for participating!


  30. Anonymous says:

    Hi Webster and Frank, I just read A Separate Peace this summer b/c my son had to read it for his boarding school. It makes CitR look like the adolescent naval-gazing that it is. John Knowles is able to explore that world and make it worthy of our attention. CitR is by comparison, 100% self-indulgent teen-age angst. Just my thoughts….Thanks, Regina


  31. Janet says:

    Another thing that strikes me as a bit amusing is that everybody that has said anything positive about Salinger's novels has been talking about Franny and Zooey, and everyone who is saying anything negative is talking about CitR, which nobody has said anything positive about. We seem to be talking a bit at cross purposes.AMDG


  32. fportelli says:

    Catcher in the Rye, quoting Wilhelm Stekel (a psychoanalyst) "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause. The mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one."


  33. Webster Bull says:

    Wonderful post, Frank, and great comments too.We received one nasty comment on this post which we declined to publish, not because it was critical (which it was) but because it used some inappropriate epithets to describe JD Salinger. The commenter's point was basically, How stupid to say that a few words by a non-believer helped turn you into a Catholic!To which my reply is, We can find Christ (and more to the truth, Christ can find us) anywhere. Perhaps JD Salinger's great contribution to humankind was to highlight the Jesus Prayer in one of his books and thereby bring it to the attention of Frank and many others. I have posted twice on David Foster Wallace now, and I have never claimed he was a Catholic or even a practicing Christian (I don't know). But there is in his writing an aching wish to overcome the sadness of much of human life, and that impulse alone can bring people to Christ. I know that reading Wallace's books feed that impulse in me, even if he offered no solutions to my sadness or longing.


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