Friday, January 29, 2010

In Memoriam

Howard Zinn, on the cusp of politicalization

This past Wednesday, two larger-than-life writers, who had not insignificant effects on my world view, passed on. That Howard Zinn and J. D. Salinger died is not especially tragic-- Zinn was 87 years old and Salinger, 91, and certainly their very best days were behind them. Zinn's most famous work, The People's History of the United States, was published in 1980 and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. Both men are old enough that they served in the Second World War, Salinger participating in D-Day and Zinn as a bombardier, whose vigorous anti-war beliefs stem from being one of the first pilots to use napalm, dropping it on Royan, France, at the end of the war. Zinn and Salinger had paradoxical reactions to their successful careers in letters. As much as Salinger withdrew from public life, Zinn embraced it, lecturing at universities and rallies on the role of the average American in producing progressive change, teaching that it has been the participation and inspiration of ordinary individuals, the unsung heroes, who have effected whatever liberal programs we enjoy (and take for granted) today.

I've read People's History twice. The story of America's rise to power is an overwhelmingly tragic tale, from the theft of indigenous land to the brutal, cheap labor enjoyed by both Southern plantation owners and Northern capitalists, building industries and making fortunes on the work of slaves, and later, immigrants. If there is a thread that connects this history, it's one of blood and tears. Well-researched, much of People's History is told in the first person by Americans who were brave enough to challenge the power structure and its tight grip on the status quo. Zinn was a revelation for a number of modern historians (termed "revisionist" by a reluctant establishment) for taking on a view of history in which progress is not measured by the winning of wars but the championing of basic human rights deserving of all men and women.

J. D. Salinger

I've read The Catcher in the Rye three separate occasions: the first time was in High School when I was too young in life to "get" it; the second time was just after finishing university, having decided to pursue a writer's life but having no idea how I would make my way in the world otherwise, wary of the transformations necessitated by adulthood; and the third time was during my first extended stay in New York City when I was 25. That final time, I didn't get it either but it was because I had moved on from Holden's callow obsessions. In short, I felt that Holden was a sympathetic misanthrope, sympathetic to the extent that he felt powerless in a society that strips us of our innocence and that this was the world's biggest "f*** you" he could never efface. All of us, especially young readers, can relate to the realization of our limitations, which is the true, great pain of young minds raised on the myths of superheroes.

I wonder had the character, Holden Caulfield, read Zinn's People's History, might he embrace the idea that there is no absolutism in life and that adults are capable of amazing, beautiful and imaginary actions. A fictional character, Holden, on the edge of life: his fate is whatever we care to dream.

1 comment:

  1. Still struggling with the density of Zinn, but Salinger shaped some part of me to, and not just Catcher in the Rye.
    Although i have also read it 3 times.
    Theres an awful lot of misanthrope in me, so I still identify with Holdens frustration and wish to say "f&*K you" to everything.

    R.I.P. both great men.