In Memoriam: Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger.

I meant this “In Memoriam” post to be solely about the great author, professor and historian, Howard Zinn, who passed away yesterday at the age of 87, but I just learned that another incredible figure from America’s literary history, J.D. Salinger, passed away yesterday as well, at the age of 91.

I came across Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States via a not-too-illustrious source: in the film “Good Will Hunting,” the title character played by Matt Damon mentions it during a scene where Will puts an intellectual smash-down on a Harvard graduate student who tries to embarrass Will’s friend by spouting off ideas plagiarized from his most recent American history seminar.

Fueled by my crush on Matt Damon, I tracked a copy down and read parts of it in tandem with my A.P. U.S. history syllabus, and later returned to it in college as I studied American literature.  The book changed a lot of my ideas about what history is, about how and by whom it’s recorded, and about the reality of history as a fact of the present as well as a record of facts from the past.  I highly recommend tracking down a copy of this book or some of Zinn’s other writings; if films are more your style than books, you could also check out the biographical portrait of Zinn, “Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,” narrated by Matt Damon, or “Howard Zinn: Voices of a People’s History,” which is a DVD of readings from A People’s History of the United States performed by a number of well-known people. The former is available for instant viewing on Netflix, if you’re interested.

Whereas Zinn was remarkably active and vocal in American public and political life for decades, J.D. Salinger, though probably possessing the better known “name” of the two,  maintained a remarkably reclusive existence for one of the foremost figures in American letters.  Though in this sense they have little in common, both of Salinger and Zinn fought in World War II, and lived through a rapidly changing America in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, through the Civil Rights and Feminist movements, more wars, presidents and assassinations, rapid technological advances, increasing globalization, ever-evolving notions concerning the place and production of art and literature and the treatment of artists, writers, and celebrities,  and the arrival of a new millennium.

Salinger’s famous The Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951, and now, more than half a century later, it is nearly ubiquitous on required reading lists across the United States. I remember reading it in 9th grade and then completing a writing assignment that asked me to write an essay about a day in my life in the style of Holden Caulfield. I still have that paper somewhere; I remember that I used several swear words and bitterly lamented the sheep-and-shepherds nature of middle school existence. I  was very proud of it, I think.

Years later I read Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and I think these books mean much more to me now than Catcher did, even to my 14-year-old self.

I have to say that hearing about J.D. Salinger’s passing away has made me desperately miss some of my friends from college – – I wish we could get together and read from his works and talk about literature the way we did when one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, died in 2007. It also makes me miss my father, who I know loves Salinger’s books as well, since he has given me a couple of them; over the years Dad has given me what’s become a veritable library of books by the writers who comprise the male portion of the American literary canon: Steinbeck, Salinger, Hemingway, Melville, etc., and this year, for my birthday, Mark Twain.

So I’ll miss Salinger, even though he hasn’t, to my knowledge, published any new works in my lifetime (or even for a decade or so before I was born). He still played a big part in my education, and in my friendships. One of my favorite things about literature is the way that it becomes incorporated into one’s life, and the way it entwines itself into one’s connections to the lives and minds of others. So thanks, to Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger, for their contributions to literature, to history, to the world, and to me. May you both rest in peace.

For some other people’s thoughts on the passing of Zinn, go here, here, or here; and for Salinger, here or here.


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