Enjoy the river Mr. Salinger. I hope we heed your words and respect the request to skip flowers, seeings how you went off to your own cemetery of seclusion some 30 years ago. I suspect that the few who knew you well will miss you but for the rest of us thousands of kids, learning something from the troubled records will remain a beautifully reciprocal arrangement.
The past year saw the loss of arguably the greatest pop music icon; one of the greatest actors of concept film; and the most significant modernist author.
Michael Jackson's limitation was wanting people to like him, to connect with the message of his music that rarely reached the heights of its idealistic level. Black and White clearly marked an attempt of unity, but Jackson's lifestyle and alleged legal indiscretions clearly mired his attempts to bring people together. The celebration of his life occurred mostly in jest, juxtaposed against his legal trouble and tragic inability to overcome his own shattered childhood. Salinger didn't buy Jackson's dream: “I'm sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect.” Jackson lost his artistic way and yet we loved him for it.
Patrick Swayze's life fizzled away to a cancerous pancreas. While his roles rarely pushed artistic boundaries, the success of Ghost, Dirty Dancing and Point Break pigeonholed Swayze into sexy roles. At that point Swayze became a sort of, as Salinger would say, "paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” Swayze showed glimpses of contentious expression that the likes of Clooney and DiCaprio are capable of, but was limited by the lull of roles that were available in the late 1980s and early 90s. Swayze may have foreshadowed his career best from a Point Break quote: "They just want to get radical. It's mindless aggression. They'll never get it, the spiritual side of it." He saw fact that his career would be defined and limited by his environment. The job of everyone around Swayze was to make him happy and commercially successful despite his own artistic leanings. In his last days Swayze showed the side that he desired his career to fall on, but the bulk of his career failed to attain a broader concept.
And John Updike bade the laurels of limitations of racist and sexist critiques. Morons hated Updike predominately because he did not hesitate in calling them morons. Rabbit Run and Rabbit Redux clearly marked the height of Updike's literary work, his unabashed willingness to confront everyday conflicts in an often uncomfortable way leaves his skill second to his brashness, his brutal honesty. In fact, Updike relished picking the scabs of conformity. I imagine Salinger's greatest criticism of Rabbit Angstrom would be surmised by, "Why the hell don'tcha, instead of keep saying it?”
And Salinger quit before he made the mistakes that he so often wrote about, which elevated him to cult status. This allowed Salinger to attain relative fame, but limited the ultimate maturity of his impact.
Salinger's unreached ceiling leaves a lot of us wondering what he could have done. Maybe his 15 or so works written in exile will one day get published, but the wonder that surrounds Salinger exceeds his actual talent.
We cannot say that Salinger's death was the greatest loss of this young century, but it could be said that the greatest loss of potential just occurred. Dialogue has not seen a writer like Salinger, and modern irony was probably lost with his death. The universally innocent voice of angst has yet to see another true outlet in 45 years, and maybe because it hasn't been needed.
Salinger once said, “I hope to hell that when I do die somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddamn cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody.” I agree. We shouldn't offer tears to this great man's tragically short career. But to honor his own words consider one of his best quotes, "How do you know you're going to do something, untill you do it?”