J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn both died yesterday, January 27, 2010. At the time of their deaths, Salinger was 91 and Zinn was 87. Both were born and raised in New York City, both served in World War II, and both profoundly affected the way I view the world. Even though I didn’t know them, never met either one of them, I believe that I came to know them somehow through their words – their choice of words, their decision to share those words, and my decision to read those words. Without knowing it at the time, both Salinger and Zinn helped me not only form my worldview but also put me on the path to where I find myself today.
Much has been written about both men, and more will surely follow. I’m not at all interested in rehashing their biographical sketches or finding the right experts to give a choice quote to validate their existences and tell those who didn’t know of them why they mattered. There’s enough people on that detail already. I just want to acknowledge that both of them mattered, to me at least, because of their work. While they both shared similar outlooks on humanity and life, they both choose very different routes to take. Salinger chose to poke his finger in the world’s eyeball and then to retreat from it forever, having the final say, even in his own death. (He’s rumored to still have at least a dozen unpublished books in his vault, and none of his work has been published in 50 years). Zinn on the other hand, choose to stick his finger in the world’s eyeball and to keep it there, to apply as much pressure as possible until he saw that justice was done.
I can show you the very spot in my mother’s house when, as a freshman in high school, I opened the maroon tattered paperback cover of The Catcher in The Rye and began reading. J.D. Salinger taught me that it was not only right to point out the absurdities in which I found myself, it was my obligation. I was required, as a human being in this time and this place to question this world, to ridicule it when needed, and to add my own voice to the whole mess. When it was first released, The New York Times‘ review of The Catcher in the Rye was less than kind; it even went so far as to mock Holden Caulfield and his teenage voice. That wasn’t the case today when The Times printed Salinger’s manuscript-length obituary. Until recently, the same paper continued to write articles that pointed out that, yes, Salinger was still a recluse. Perhaps the best tribute to Salinger and his work came from The Onion, with the headline: “Bunch of Phonies Mourn J.D. Salinger.”
I can also show you the exact spot in my grandmother’s house when, as a freshman in college, I opened the yellow shiny paperback cover of A People’s History of the United States and began reading. Howard Zinn opened my eyes and confirmed what I had long suspected, that the American Dream is fraught with much blood, sweat, and tears. And while the myth that everyone can make it if they simply try hard enough had managed to inundate the textbooks of my youth, Zinn documented that millions had come to this land in pursuit of that dream and had tried in earnest to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps but without success. The Boston Globe wrote upon his death “For Dr. Zinn, activism was a natural extension of the revisionist brand of history he taught.” Zinn proved that you could be both a scholar and interesting. But more importantly, he proved that you can make a difference with what you learn.
To say that both Salinger and Zinn will live on through their words reeks of a cliche of the highest order, but it’s still true. That’s what words do. They matter. They can either stink up the whole joint or they can leave an impression on someone for a lifetime.