If you have never heard of it, then you live under a rock. If you have never read it, then there is a big hole in your life where this book should be. Holden Caulfield’s search to find his place in the world has long been hailed as the quintessential tale of teen angst. But for me, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye far surpasses such a general assessment. The entire story hovers above a violent undercurrent of energy, and it feels like Holden is going to explode if just one more person disappoints him or one more thing goes wrong. Holden’s voice puts me in a trance…I get pulled into his world of “phonies” and “slobs” and I absorb his loneliness and let it mingle with my own. It’s the story of not being able to find a single place where you feel you belong. Rye was one of the most censored and controversial books of the 20th Century, and as a result it possesses an almost mythical level of mystique. People are still fascinated with Holden, the ultimate modern antihero. And Salinger has only enhanced the book’s mystique by proving himself to be one of the most reclusive writers of the last century. He has hidden from the world for decades…refusing to grant interviews, not publishing any new work, and suing those who try to do anything with his existing work. It seems as if, like Holden Caulfield, Salinger thinks we’re all a bunch of phonies and he just wants us to leave him alone so that he can die. Well, some dude in Sweden had other plans.
Fredrik Colting has written “An Unauthorized Fictional Examination of the Relationship Between J. D. Salinger and his Most Famous Character” under the nom de plume of J.D. California and entitled 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye. In the book, Holden returns as 76-year old “Mr. C” who has just left a retirement home (not unlike Holden’s departure from prep school at the beginning of Rye). Set in New York City, Mr. C encounters many of the same characters as Holden does in Rye, and this time J.D. Salinger shows up as a character (“Mr. Salinger”) who tries to kill off his famous creation by using many different violent and humorous means. Colting says the book is “a critical exploration of such themes as the relationship between J.D. Salinger, the famously reclusive author, and Holden Caulfield, his brash and ageless fictional creation.” But Salinger’s lawyers are singing a different tune.
A lawsuit filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan last week has succeeded in delaying the publication of Colting’s creation in the United States temporarily while the judge ponders the copyright infringement case that has been set before her. Salinger argues that his iconic protagonist is protected by copyright; Colting argues that his new book is protected by the doctrine of fair use. And there sits poor Holden in the middle….still seeking his place in the world.
While I am unable to speak to the quality of the writing in 60 Years Later (for obvious reasons), I can say this: what a freaking awesome idea. And what an homage to Salinger. To be so notable a cultural figure and to have created so influential a fictional character as to engender such a response almost 60 YEARS after initial publication is…well, impressive. Salinger may argue that Colting is just using his brilliance and name to sell books (and I’m sure it’s quite possible that the argument may hold some merit), but I wonder if he is also able to appreciate the honor being paid to him.
But of course this is not the first time that Salinger has tried to keep Holden and his other creations clutched tight to his bosom; many artists over the years (some as notable as Steven Spielberg) have attempted to use Salinger’s work as basis for creative projects, and each time Salinger has refused because, according to his literary agent, “he wants his fiction and his characters to remain intact as he wrote them.”
I am troubled by Salinger’s death grip on his work. Granted, this new evolution of Holden (excuse me: “Mr. C”) may be a total piece of literary crap that doesn’t even hold a candle to the original masterpiece…but isn’t Salinger sort of missing the whole point of being alive and making art? We evolve and advance because we build on what others have so brilliantly and boldly created before us. Each time a writer sits down to write, she does not begin in an empty vacuum where she must reinvent language and storytelling and structure and all literary devices. No. She has Aristotle and Shakespeare and the work of thousands upon thousands of other talented and trailblazing writers and thinkers and artists to pull from. To me, Salinger’s hold on his work is like birthing a baby and then confining it to a baby sling around his torso until he withers away and dies and the child is finally free to crawl away and begin his own life. I also think it’s an illusion that an artist can hold on to his or her work once it is released out into the world. As soon as other brains have experienced and interpreted that work, there’s no telling how that new information is going to inspire and inform those brains as they venture down their own creative paths.
While I can appreciate and support the concept of copyright, I am also a big fan of fair use. If a work is transformative (i.e. if it is “something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning or message”), then it is fair use. How limited would the literature of the last 400 years have been if no one had been permitted to borrow/steal/find inspiration in the works of William Shakespeare? How much would modern suspense and thriller movies suffer if they were forbidden to borrow/steal/find inspiration in the works of Alfred Hitchcock? Of course this list can go on and on and on and on. Because that’s what we DO. If something speaks to us, we hold on to it and it becomes a part of our life. If we are passionate enough about it, we are inspired to create new art. And then the original art that inspired the new art has inherently become part of the new art. It’s progress. It’s new life. It’s beautiful.
Since our aim here at Lit Drift is to inspire, I would recommend the following: close your eyes and let your mind wander. Think of one book or short story or film or play that you have seen at any point in your life that really inspired you. Ask yourself why you were inspired. Ask yourself if there were any unanswered questions that you wish had been answered….any character relationships you wish had been explored in greater depth…anything that you would have done differently. And then open your eyes and do it. Doodle it as a cartoon. Write it as a stream-of-consciousness rant. Take what initially inspired you and give it new life in a new form.
And if it was Holden Caulfield who showed up in your artistic vision, pack it up and mail it to Salinger. That should really piss him off.