When JD Salinger died, Adam Gopnik wrote a spirited, if rather glibly positivist, apologia for his place in American literature in The New Yorker’s "Talk of the Town" section. Singling out Catcher in the Rye in particular, he elected it to a troika of American letters, setting it alongside The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. For Gopnik, evidently, the symmetry of this grouping is non-pareil. Each novel presents the struggle of the man-child to come of age which, of course, means learning what it means to be disillusioned. As with the man, so the Republic? Twain and Fitzgerald get no real argument from me, but Salinger has always seemed grotesquely over-rated; a minor satirist masquerading as Dostoevsky.
If I had my druthers – and in this blog, I do, reader – I would nominate an alternate troika: a darker, more perturbed vision of the loss of innocence. Moby Dick, Nightwood, and On The Road. In place of narratives of guileless innocence corrupted or betrayed by experience, I would substitute tales of darkness and perverse desires for deranged orders of transcendence. Of baroque language over so-called plain speaking. Of the radical abundance and darkness of experience over the paucity of disappointed affirmation. Each of these works places a premium on the power of negation in a way that Gopnik’s bland choices do not.
As Adorno insists, “Art is true to the extent to which it is discordant and antagonistic in its language and in its whole essence, provided that it synthesizes those diremptions, thus making them determinate in their irreconcilability. Its paradoxical task is to attest to the lack of concord while at the same time working to abolish discordance.”