February 1, 2010

Two celebrated American authors who died this week - J. D. Salinger, 91, and Louis Auchincloss, 92 - had more in common than being the same age. Both writers had attended prep schools and wrote novels about them that become best sellers. Salinger’s, of course, was The Catcher In The Rye, from 1951; Auchincloss’s The Rector of Justin is not as well known as Catcher but was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1964.

That’s where the similarities between the two men’s lives end. The rest of their careers illustrate two very different reactions to the prep-school experience and to the life of success, wealth, and style that often follows this adolescent rite of passage.

It’s not surprising that the creator of the alienated, rebellious Holden Caulfield would not settle into the same circles in New York’s well-to-do as his parents. But his total rejection of fame in the early 1950s and subsequent life as a recluse in New Hampshire were not only a surprise but even an affront to the upper class of his youth - the same group that had become the biggest fans of all his stories that appeared in The New Yorker. Living in the type of remote “cabin” that Holden Caulfield aspired to, Salinger must have been oblivious to all the variations on “preppy” style that came and went during his over 50 years in seclusion - unless L. L. Bean and Brooks Brothers catalogs found their way to his mailbox. It’s almost as hard to imagine him ordering a trendy-colored polo shirt as it is to picture him blogging.

Auchincloss, on the other hand, became not only a prominent member of New York society, but also its chronicler in his novels and its proud defender in the press. Working as a lawyer in New York firms while turning out dozens of novels, biographies and short stores, Auchincloss wrote books whose very tittles proclaimed their privileged characters’ lives: Portrait in Brownstone, Diary of a Yuppie, The Headmaster’s Dilemma. In response to critics who said his writing about the rich was superficial and dated, he said, as noted in his New York Times obituary, “That business of objecting to the subject material or the people that an author writes about is purely class prejudice, and you will note that it always disappears with an author’s death.” Now time will tell if that’s true in Auchincloss’s case.

Ultimately, the future of these writers’ books will not depend on how each of them reacted to their social backgrounds. Though Auchincloss produced many more books than Salinger - more than 60 compared with just four (that we know of) - the author of The Catcher In The Rye found a voice and style all his own. In a cartoon tribute, Jeffery Koterba of the Omaha World-Herald drew a young teen in his room surrounded by a full array of computers and other electronic devices. But he’s lying on his bed reading The Catcher In The Rye. He may or may not be a prep-school student. ~

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by Stan Tymorek

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