Friday, January 29, 2010

Catcher and the Upper Crust

Two men in their nineties died this week. J.D. Salinger, a recluse in New Hampshire, produced four books in his lifetime. Louis Auchincloss lived in old-money Manhattan, practiced Wall Street law and wrote more than sixty novels, biographies and works of criticism.

Apart from being published in the New Yorker, they had little in common, Auchincloss the "chronicler of New York's upper crust," as the Times headlined his obituary, while Salinger chose a "half-century of solitude and silence [that] was a creative act in itself, requiring extraordinary force of will."

His passing recalls an evening in 1964 in a living room that resembled an overstuffed museum, paintings crowding the walls, sculptures and objets d'art on every surface. I had been invited to dinner by an elderly British couple, Jean and Edward Fowles, who were selling the Duveen Gallery, a five-story building full of art, to my boss, Norton Simon.

As I was admiring the decor, Jean Fowles handed me a small silver frame from the coffee table with a snapshot of a little girl and boy. "My grandchildren," she said with a sigh. "My daughter is separated from their father. He's a writer, J.D. Salinger..."

It was startling to be reminded of the already-legendary author of "Catcher in the Rye" amid all the opulence that Holden Caulfield would surely have scorned as the abode of "phonies" but was the natural habitat of Auchincloss, a cousin by marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy's, who wrote about that world with the kind of austere elegance of his role model, Edith Wharton.

Salinger with his sparse literary output has helped shape the sensibilities of generations of teenagers, while Auchincloss with a much larger body of work is unlikely to be remembered that well by literary posterity.

Yet, at this moment of their passing, it is his moral dissection of creatures in banks and board rooms that may resonate even more strongly in an America decimated by their greed than the shortcomings of the kind of parents Salinger excoriated in "Catcher in the Rye."

The literary life has many mansions.

1 comment:

Holte Ender said...

I have a feeling there is more to come from Salinger, I can't imagine he didn't write all his life.