JD Salinger is dead, and while I expect most news outlets to write headlines referring to him as just "Author of Catcher In The Rye," the briefest eulogy I would give him amounts to "May no one graffiti 'fuck you' on his tombstone."
There's a certain self-conscious backlash around that book, one cited by too many folks that don't seem like big readers as a favorite. Yet that self-consciousness leads to citing other books- Franny And Zooey, Nine Stories- as being better, but remember what got these people interested enough to read those later works in the first place. The Catcher In The Rye is uniquely strong piece of high-school assigned reading, in that it's one of the few works of literature that an adolescent can understand. In college, I heard people on the bus talking about Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, as a book they were rereading and getting a lot more out of from an older vantage point.
The impact that book made at the time of its release was deeply powerful, cited as part of an epiphany by Bruce Jay Friedman. The voice of the novel was inspiring in its immediacy, to the people of the 1950s. That "I can do this" realization is attributable to any number of works of art of the twentieth century, but it seems like the best idea-virus we could ever hope to spread, an inspiration to the spirit in the face of adversity. Friedman went on to become a novelist, as well as editing an anthology called "Black Humor" that contained within its pages some of the most interesting folks in mid-twentieth-century fiction, the folks that would midwife postmodernism in literature. This is almost a tangential connection, but it's worth noting the way the writers would all move in different directions to the point where the idea of an anthology containing them all could not effectively be said to document a movement of any kind.
Think, then, of the way Salinger's vision developed, away from the angst of young people, and into this kind of mystic spiritual searching. Buddhism, meditation- these were not popular subjects in 1950s literature. There is a documentary about the beat movement where the person who introduced the beats to these ideas was a 17-year-old girl named Hope, who ended up undergoing electroshock therapy. Here it is, in The New Yorker, in a Jewish sophisticate intellectual milieu. It seems to make sense now, but this can't be the case historically: In all likelihood it's with Salinger that these ideas start to proliferate.
With Salinger we find a major force for mind-expansion, not in a sixties drug culture way, but for general spiritual inquest and expression of contemporary voice. Later, in the 1990s, there'd be a zine called Bananafish, edited by one Seymour Glass, which would document the noise underground which has come to be a major influence on contemporary art, exciting people with the same appeal of freedom.
That's all with only four books in print. They ended up popular enough to be issued as pocket paperbacks, priced to move around six dollars, approximately the size and cost of the sort of cassette tape one could order through the mail after reading about it in an issue of Bananafish. He's dead at 91 years old, and would that I could live on so long.