Stephen King on J.D. Salinger: 'The last of the great post-WWII American writers'

I wasn’t a huge Salinger fan, but I’m sorry to hear of his passing — the way you’d feel if you heard an eccentric, short-tempered, but often fascinating uncle had passed away. Not as great a loss as Beverly Jensen (her marvelous The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay will be published this summer), who wrote only one book before dying of cancer at the age of 49, or of Raymond Carver, who was barely into his 50s; Salinger was, after all, in his 90s.

But it is a milestone of sorts, because Salinger was the last of the great post-WWII American writers, and in Holden Caulfield — maybe the greatest American-boy narrator since Huck Finn — he created an authentic Voice of the Age: funny, anxious, at odds with himself, and badly lost.

Salinger’s death may answer one question that has intrigued readers, writers, and critics for nearly half a century — what literary trove of unpublished work may he have left behind? Much? Some? Or none? Salinger is gone, but if we’re lucky, he may have more to say, even so.

Comments (217 total) Add your comment
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  • josher

    Not much of a fan? Really? He could certainly write circles around you, and he never flooded the market with mediocre novels.

    • Scott2

      i agree, why is he comparing Salinger to people i haven’t even herd of? out of all the people they got to write on his passing, they pick king? at least Salinger didn’t sell out to the movie business, one of a kind, makes him that much more intriguing. long live Salinger, long live Caulfield

      • Scott3

        You’ve never heard of Raymond Carver? Then who the hell are you to judge a writer?

      • Brian C.

        His point in bringing up Carver (who you should have heard of) and Beverly Jensen is that there are other writers that have died recently of non-natural causes that we should be paying just as much if not more attention to.

      • Robin

        Scott2, please learn how to spell and use grammar. You are embarrassing yourself here while talking about two authors that at least know how spell the word ‘heard’.

      • bmill

        Robin, please examine your own grammar before you criticize that of others. The phrase “at least know how spell the word ‘heard'” seems to be missing something. I love it when people butcher a language while pointing out other people’s mistakes. Talk about embarrassing.

      • Anne

        @ Brian C.: Thanks for clarifying.
        @ Uncle Stevie: Thanks for an interesting and insightful article. I always love your columns! However, I hate it when people criticize Salinger for being so unprolific. Take Harper Lee, for example. Is she a bad writer because she’s only written “To Kill a Mockingbird”? I would say no. She’s great. By the same token, Salinger was an excellent writer, even if he wasn’t as prolific as you, Uncle Stevie, or Carver. Let’s not compare apples and oranges.
        As to your final question, I wonder whether Matt Salinger will release any of his father’s manuscripts…My guess is he’ll protect his father’s estate. Whatever Salinger wanted will happen, even if it means burning a treasure trove.

      • BlackIrish4094

        I’m a King fan but they were off base getting him to comment, is Stephen King really the one you go to for comments on a writer? Salinger may not appeal to King as much os the other authors but Catcher in the Rye has been read (or the cliff notes read) by several generations of kids in this country. That in and of itself puts him a head of Beverly Jensen and Raymond Carver.

      • Rich

        Robin: “…about two authors that at least…”
        Tisk, tisk: “…about two authors who at least…”

        I guess even critics can be wrong.

      • Ian

        He’s not comparing Salinger to Carver and Jensen as authors. He’s comparing the gravity of their passing. As in, it’s a bigger loss to lose a 49 year-old who was only given the time to write one novel before passing young, versus an author who chose not to publish anything else and lived into his nineties. The death of a 49 year-old just beginning what could have been a wonderful career is just a bit more tragic than the death of a 90+ year-old who simply chose to not publish anything else.

        Think just a bit before speaking (and of course bitching and moaning), and you might be able to comprehend the meaning of the words you read.

      • Craig Ranapia

        Good God, Scott — you do realise that King writes a column for EW? And if so, what the heck is so “off base” about asking a best-selling writer and contributor to comment on the death of a high profile American writer?

    • Scott2

      Cheers!

    • Joshua

      Stephen King never said he was a better writer then Salinger only that he was not a fan. The one does not imply the other. I am not a fan of Salinger either but that does not mean I believe I am a better writer. Also, Stephen King never compares the other writers he mentions with Salinger. You people need to learn to read more closely.

      • bmill

        And you need to learn the difference between ‘then’ and ‘than’

      • Chad

        Ease up on the English lessons, bmill. This is a blog, not a term paper. (Otherwise I’d red-mark your sentence for starting with a conjunction and not ending with punctuation.)

      • bc

        Thank you, Chad.

      • Tap

        BMill did too end with punctuation, Chad. There’s an apostrophe in plain sight.

      • Marc

        You people are out of your freaking minds. Who gives a sh#t?

      • Diane

        I thought Stephen King was saying that it’s not a tragedy when a person dies in his 90s the way it is when a person dies young.

    • kristen

      “Catcher in the Rye” was a standout among his shorter works (which just didn’t have as much of a punch as that novel).
      HOWEVER, ahem, ahem, I am currently reading Stephen King’s “The Stand”, and must take offense! KING IS KING! Almost all his books (never liked Salem’s Lot) are magnifique!

      • chuddle

        Man, I loved Salem’s Lot. Very creepy.

      • Baranoan

        The Stand and The Talisman both fall into my own personal top 5 novels. I do like most of Kings work but he did sell out, and he did flood the market with entertaining but Mediocre novels. I.E. Dreamcatchers and Cell to name only two the book about the kidnapping was also terrible… Duma Key is the only thing written recently I’ve found worth reading.

    • luke

      im not particularly a big fan of king…and ive read “catcher in the rye” many times, but who are you to judge what king has to say? the man is a very accomplished writer himself. many would argue that “the stand” and his “dark tower” series blow away the short novel “a catcher in the rye” in terms of literary accomplishments.

      i also dont see how he insults salinger in any way. the man comes out and says he was never a huge fan(would you expect a man who specializes in writing horror stories and psychological thrillers to gush over a man who wrote about teen angst?) but quickly offers that he has great respect for salinger and considers his death a loss. futhermore he uses the words “treasure trove” in regards to the possible unread works that salinger may have left behind.

      i think you need to get over yourself. different people have different opinions. the intelligent people,however, like king(and seemingly unlike you), are the ones who can accept differences in opinion but still respect someone despite their difference in opinion.

      • chuddle

        Typically, people capitalize the first letter in a sentence and proper nouns.

      • luke

        typically, those who pay attention to minor details, often miss the big picture.

    • Eric

      Roger that.

      • JOHN

        I THINK LUKE IS COOL BECAUSE HE DOESN’T USE THE SHIFT KEY. WHAT’S NEXT….NO PUNCTUATION! I REMEMBER THINKING THAT WAS NEAT IN HIGH SCHOOL POETRY CLASS.

      • luke

        exactly where do you think that i should have used the “shift” key?

      • luke

        you should also check your own punctuation john. shouldnt you use a “?” after a question?

      • PBR

        I wish I could make everyone on this blog eat their own fecal matter…..

      • Anne

        @ PBR: Best comment ever.

    • Steve

      Betting you haven’t read Stephen King’s stuff, critically, or you wouldn’t be making such obviously adolescent statements. I can think of half a dozen King novels right now that I’d read over Catcher – wait, I’m at a dozen now. Hold on, now it’s two dozen.
      While we’re waiting for my to count all of these up, please post your website where I can read your finest?

      • Cheryl

        I read a lot – A LOT!!! I’ve read most of King and liked a lot of it. I read Catcher – I think it was required when I was in high school and I liked it too. But as far as preference goes, I much prefer ( and am haunted by) the works of King than by those of Hawthorne or Melville who would be termed “better” writers. Whatever that may mean… Thanks Mr King for many sleepless nights!

    • ThinkerHead

      Come on folks, he said
      “But it is a milestone of sorts, because Salinger was the last of the great post-WWII American writers”
      With that, all should be forgiven.

    • Patty

      Yeah…he isn’t a fan. So what? He then goes onto say what a great writer Salinger is. That’s really no reason to attack King, who happens to be an excellent storyteller. You people are all idiots and obviously don’t know how to read. His memoriam is actually in praise. It’s the same as saying, yeah…Tom Hanks is a great actor…but I’m not really a fan. Everyone has a right to their own opinion. It has nothing to do with whether or not Salinger was a good writer.

      • BlackIrish4094

        Then why does he try to diminish Salinger’s death by bringing other writers who have passed away into the conversation. I’m a King fan but he should have reserved his comments to only about Salinger. Neither of the other two authors have written anything with the cultural impact of Ctachet. Stop being just a King fanboy.

      • BlackIrish4094

        Cather I mean, don’t want a mis-type with all of you punctuation and spelling geeks going crazy.

      • BlackIrish4094

        CATCHER, arggh, I can’t type, Friday afternoon coordination failure, lol.

      • La

        Oh, good. I thought it was a random comment on Willa Cather.

    • ks

      agreed

      • Terry Cordwell

        Stephen King and JD Salinger do not belong in the same stratosphere. It’s like comparing Marlon Brando with that guy who plays Ian Beale.

    • JulieDole

      I’m not a huge King fan but, really, King is a hack? The man who dashed off “The Shawshank Redemption” as a short story?

      Don’t blame a writer for writing. There are those who include being prolific in defining genius.

      Salinger was also prolific. He stopped publishing, but he continued to write for his own pleasure.

      Do you have personal knowledge of Salinger’s consistent brilliance in those later pieces?

    • Spartacus

      where does the world find people like this guy Scott2?

      seriously man!

      where in the hell does the world find people like this.

      HEY SCOTT…I GOT SOME NEWS FOR YOU

      THE MAN WAS POOR FOR FIFTEEN FRIKKIN YEARS UNTIL THE MOVIES CAME CALLING ON HIM!

      THE STAND AND THE DARK TOWER ARE MAYBE THE SINGLE BEST 2 AMERICAN NOVELS OF THE PAST 75 YEARS.

      HIS NEW BOOK, UNDER THE DOME IS BETTER THAN BOTH OF THOSE.

      SOME OF HIS BOOKS, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, CARRIE, THE MIST, CHRISTINE, THE GREEN MILE
      TO NAME BUT A FEW WERE EVEN NOMINATED FOR AND WON, QUITRE DESERVINGLY I MIGHT ADD ACADEMY AWARDS.

      WHEN IT COMES TO THE GREAT AMWERICAN NOVESL IN THE UNITED STATES…

      THE NAME STEPHEN KING, IMMEDIATELY COMES TO MIND!

      THE ARGUMANE THAT HE IS A “SELL OUT” REEKS OF JEALOUSY, ENVY, AND MISPLACED ANGER!

      YOU NEED TO GROW UP AND GET YOUR HEAD ON STRAIGHT!

  • scott

    I agree josher- what was the point of King doing this post? Nothing offered here.Like his awful writing.

    • Gerard

      I thought it was a European thing to applaud someone on the way up, but once they got there to knock them straight to hell. Look Mr.King is not an awful writer simple. Read the Great Gatsby and compare the flow to the Stand, thats great writing. Sure A miss or two, Buick Stephen! But all in all I bow to his greatness. Josher your just plain wrong.
      your sincerely
      An Irish European

      • Andrea

        Why would you use The Great Gatsby for your comparison, when it wasn’t even written by Salinger?

      • Murray

        you are missing Gerard’s point entirely. Read and think before responding.

      • chuddle

        I agree. Point completely and utterly missed.

      • Gerard

        Sorry Andrea, I know that Gatsby wasnt written by Salinger, as not much was in fairness, no it was off course F.Scott Fitz. However Some books just flow and draw you along like a river that evenually spills you into a vast ocean. The Stand and The Great Gatsby floated my boat in the same fashion. Genius spills you forth a satisfied customer. Be real books are an entertainment, King and Salinger and F.Scott started with the same premise!

    • Mbook

      Do people ever state an honest opinion anymore? Or is bitchiness all we’re left with?

  • Dusty

    Any of Stephen’s books are superior to anything ive read by Salinger. Catcher in the Rye is as overrated as Wuthering Heights.

    • Gabe

      I agree that “Catcher in the Rye” is somewhat overrated. In my opinion its good not great.

      • christos

        whereas great gatsby is.

  • Klint

    I prefer King’s honest take to some gushing rubbish. I get the impression a lot of comtemporary writers didn’t care too much for Salinger. It’s a bit like how today’s rock bands don’t really acknowledge Nirvana – it’s something you’re more likely to appreciate as a young teen rather than adult.

    • Rock Golf

      Nirvana? That’s the standard now for old acts that new bands don’t acknowledge.

      My GOD, I’m old!

      • Klint

        Well yeah, pop music being the fluid medium it is, even the 90s are ‘old’ now.

    • Gregq

      Nirvana sucks.

      • chuddle

        No, you suck. :-)

      • BlackIrish4094

        No, Nirvana sucks, expand your lame musical taste.

    • jp

      king is to salinger as apple is to orange. the vast majority of king’s writing is plot driven while salinger focused on character development. “franny and zooey” is one of my favorite books, and so is “the gunslinger”.
      however, it is a little peculiar that EW would choose stephen king to write in memoriam when: 1)he’s not a fan; 2)there are plenty of famous writers who more or less worship salinger; 3)stephen king’s fee is probably very high; 4)does anybody think EW would have asked salinger to write about king if their roles were reversed?
      ps: please forgive/ignore any and all grammatical missteps

      • BlackIrish4094

        I concur JP and I am a King fan (although after the crappy ending to the Dark Tower I’ve been pretty down on his newer stuff).

      • La

        You do know that King is a regular EW columnist, right?

      • jp

        you do know EW has a lot of regular columnists, right?
        i’m confused as to why king didn’t take a pass. it’s rare for him to publish anything under 500 pages. i suspect EW assumed he’d put a little more “effort” into it. if you’re going to write it, then write it. otherwise, give ryan seacrest a shot at it.

    • BlackIrish4094

      What?? Nirvana is not a standard comparable to Salinger. Get a grip idiot.

  • ian g

    please, this is not about the commentators, this is not about Stephen King, this is not about EW. this is about J.D. Salinger.

    and how you’re able to tell us that one piece of literature is superior to another, that’s quite self-centered. where are your novels, so that i might judge you?

    i’m thankful that King had the heart to honor a hero of American literature, no matter if he reads him or not (I can’t stand Catcher in the Rye, myself).

    RIP J.D. I’ll get around to reading more of your work, that is the promise I will make in your honor.

    • JDD

      Exactly. His disclosure was seemed about being honest and saying no matter what your stance or tastes regarding Salinger’s work, it is sad a voice has been lost. And that it should NOT be about the petty bickering which so frequently inundates these forums.

      • JDD

        Gah. “His disclosure seemed…” Lousy poor editing.

  • McHuge

    Josher – of course he never flooded the market with mediocre novels – because he had none. Novels that is, of any sort aside from Catcher. Face it – Salinger was a one trick pony who’s boring work aside from Catcher in the Rye is some of the most uninspired garbage of the last 60 years. I suspect Salinger is held in such high regards due more to his eccentric nature and elusiveness than his erratic and uninspiring published works. People are in love with the idea of JD Salinger more than anything that he wrote.

    Long live the King.

    • Joshua

      Couldn’t agree more; Salinger was a one trick pony who decided to rest on his laurels. After the great success of Catcher in the Rye he knew he couldn’t write anything of similar quality so he simply hung it up and played the part of the eccentric genius. Unfortunately, one work does not a genius make. A century from now he will largely be forgotten.

      • thin

        There are a number of authors recognized as genius for a single great work, and I think the passing of a century will demonstrate the emptiness of your prediction.

  • Grunwald

    A writer doesn’t have to love another writers stories to respect his work. Or to be curious about what work may be left behind, considering Salinger has the one novel on his resume.

    To know King has awful writing, one would have to had read some of his work.

    There must have been something there to like, or why continue reading it? And to stop reading after only one attempt because “it was so bad”, you don’t have the sample size, in my opinion, to generalize.

    I read Catcher in the Rye a couple times. Twice as a kid and once as an adult. Klint has a point, I appreciated and enjoyed the book more as a kid.

    It would be something if there were unpublished stories JD has squirreled away. Books that came out of that time period are interesting, for me. Like a window into the past.

  • BobS

    Salinger may have written a great novel, but the most notable thing he did was disappear after. Smart I guess for PR purposes, but writers write.

    • BlackIrish4094

      How do you know he didn’t write? He just didn’t publish. Also, King’s comments would have been fine if he just left out the comments about the other two writers. He made it sound like why is everyone only worried about Salinger, what about these guys. Bad taste by King.

  • jas

    McHuge-
    I cannot really agree with you that people are more in love with the idea of Salinger than with his work or that he wrote nothing of merit other than Catcher in the Rye. While I understand why some people may dismiss Franny and Zooey or Raise High the Roofbeams Carpenters (although I did enjoy them both), Nine Stories is an amazing collection. It ranks among my favorite books of short stories and I know many people who agree with me. You may be a fan of Salinger but a one trick pony he was not.

  • Al

    Talk about damning with faint praise. If you are going to write such a lukewarm obituary, why write anything at all?

    • thin

      What a perfect and succinct comment. Well said.

    • anna

      Yes! Let the man rest in peace! Is the funeral JD Salinger private or public?

  • poughkeepsiejohn

    You know it’s a real sucky day when we lose not just J. D. Salinger but also Howard Zinn in a single day. J. D. had given us one of the greatest anti-heroes in the history of literature, Holden Caufield. Howard helped us look at our history through the eyes of the poor, the needy and the overlooked, who are the ones who truly make history. Had Holden Caufield been a product of the late 1960’s, he’d definitely be a peace activist or a war protestor.

    • Belctar

      Holden Caulfield is the epitome of whiny teen angst. Protagonist doesn’t equal hero. Caulfield wouldn’t have been a protestor, because that takes initiative. He would have been sitting in some crappy apartment, smoking weed, complaining about how terrible it is to be living in modern society.

  • Ron

    As far as I’m concerned, “The Catcher in the Rye” is one of the greatest American novels of all time. There is a reason why it was taught at my public high school and nothing by King–because Salinger was a great writer.

    • Cheney

      Because public schools always get it right.

    • Canada

      As far as I’m concerned, “Jack and Jill” is one of the greatest American novels of all time. There is a reason why it is taught in public schools – because it is a great book.

    • CoffeeNow

      Or it may be because not much of Kings writings would be appropriate for a high school corriculum.

      • CoffeeNow

        *curriculum

    • Cheryl

      JMHO – I thought ‘Mockingbird’ was far superior to Catcher. I liked the writing and I thought it had an excellent social message. The characters and story stay with me to this day although Caulfield has faded. Again, JMHO

  • Kadere

    King, you’re a tool.

  • Rock

    I miss Howard Zinn already.

  • Ryan

    I very much disagree with the people who say Salinger is a bad writer. While I no longer agree with Holden Caulfield the way I did as a high schooler, Catcher in the Rye still stands tall as one of the best portrayals of a gradual mental breakdown. There’s no melodrama, no screaming etc. He just falls apart. Still, despite that work being his only novel proper, Franny and Zooey is a great short story/novella combo that pretty much functions as a novel, while, as someone else mentioned, Nine Stories is brilliant. Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction is a bit harder to get into, but if you’ve been hooked into the Glass family by then, it’s pretty hard not to want to read more. I’m not dissing King, but these two authors are hardly worth comparing. They don’t even write in the same genre. By the by, to the person who said Salinger isn’t a great because he wasn’t prolific, why don’t you tell that to Harper Lee? Or is To Kill a Mockingbird too boring for you?

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