Men of Letters

It is one of the truer oddities of our time:  Celebrities depart in clusters of three, and in the past two days America lost three of its more interesting men of letters:  Louis Auchincloss, Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger.  What follows is a carefully considered deconstruction of myth and themes in their work some personal thoughts on their work.

It's like if this guy had gone to law school and been a writer.

Louis Auchincloss (September 27, 1917 – January 26, 2010)

I have not read one word of Auchincloss’ novels, as there are just too, too many books to read.  He seems to have chronicled a gilded age that no longer exists (much like the late Dominick Dunne), and one that I like to pretend to dip into by putting on red pants and drinking expensive wine on August nights on the Island.  But I did quote Mr. Auchincloss in my unproduced screenplay Lawyers, Guns & Money:

Andrew starts down the steps.
WARREN:  Hey, you remember that Auchinloss quote your mother used to say to me all the time?

Andrew stops and turns.

ANDREW:  Of course.

WARREN:  The world has no use for a second-rate writer, composer, pianist, but the world– the world could make good use of a second rate lawyer.
That’s Mr. Auchincloss, and I always rather like it.  Time to throw this on the top of the to-read pile.

He wrote the right fucking books.

Howard Zinn (August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010)

Will Hunting’s favorite historian, I remember when and where I read A People’s History of the United States:  One August on the Island, lying on the beach and dipping into over 600 pages of brutal, knock-your-suntan-lotion-off truth about America (taking into account the incongruous setting, I used to call it ‘A Manual On How To Opress.’).  From the first page of Christopher Columbus’ outright slaughter of the natives, it rocked my tiny little brain.
But that’s not the book I really remember Zinn for, even; really it’s his memoir of his days teaching at Spellman, You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train.  That’s a book all college kids ought to read; they’ll never go into business or law.  (Okay, so maybe not.)  It’s also a pretty compelling documentary.  Mr. Zinn couldn’t be further away from Mr. Auchincloss, and even though he found little to admire about the current President, every country needs more people like Mr. Zinn.  And it doesn’t hurt that Bruce Springsteen acknowledges his debt to Mr. Zinn on works like the  Nebraska album either.

Hello, I wrote 'The Catcher in the Rye.'

J.D. Salinger (January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010)

What can you really write about J.D. Salinger that hasn’t already been written?  I’ve forgotten exactly when I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time–it must’ve been high school, of course–but for me, as for so many, it’s one of Those Books, the ones you return to every few years.  Especially as we slip further and further away from our Holden Caufield days, into the phonies we warned about.  But perhaps it’s also one of those books you have to encounter at a certain time:  I gave a copy of it to a friend about five years ago, and she didn’t connect to it one bit.
Several years ago, around that time, when I was living in Union City, NJ and taking the bus into the city all the time, I burned through Franny & Zooey and the Glass chronicles and while they didn’t burn as bright as Holden, well, they’re pure genius too of course (and it doesn’t hurt that he’s one of my mother’s favorite authors).
But one of my very favorite identifications with Mr. Salinger comes from the novelist W.P. Kinsella:  In his novel Shoeless Joe, the author the protagonist Ray Kinsella kidnaps is J.D. Salinger, and the book that caused him to not want to have a catch with his father is, of course, Catcher in the Rye.  (If you’ve ever read the novel, it’s quite excellent on its own, and John Heard narrates a terrific audio version.)  By the time we get to the beautiful Phil Alden Robinson film Field of Dreams Salinger’s Terrance Mann, but that makes a certain sense too.  And of course you gotta love a guy who never sold Holden to the movies, where he would’ve been played by a young Leonardo, no doubt.  So:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

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