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In Memoriam J.D. Salinger

Jan. 1, 1919–Jan. 27, 2010
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He epitomized what some writers may deem the ultimate luxury—a successful authorial life free from the public eye and the endless self-promotion required in the modern book world.
Moreover, J.D. Salinger was able to pull it off by writing short stories and his unforgettable—and only—novel: The Catcher in the Rye. It was a book so good that while it was published in 1951—and despite the author’s reclusive quirks over the decades that followed—it still sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year, and connects with readers everywhere.

What is the magic of the book and its longevity? Analyses abound, but one factor is undeniable: Holden Caulfield has one distinctive voice.

In honor of that voice and its creator, we took a look at William Cane’s Write Like the Masters to see what the rest of us might learn. Here’s to you, J.D., hounds-tooth coats, carousels, eccentricities and all.

In fiction and nonfiction, voice refers to the feeling and tone of writing, a certain flavor determined by word choice and phrasing that gives a text dimension and makes it distinctly and peculiarly human. The voice of a writer is usually easier to hear in first person texts because third person narratives so often mimic the “beige voice” of an objective reporter. With first person it’s usually easier to be intimate, unique and quirky; indeed, open any page of The Catcher in the Rye and you’ll hear Holden’s voice loud and clear.

Salinger makes use of teen barbarisms and he employs numerous leitmotifs—that is, words or phrases that recur with a character and lend him personality. F. Scott Fitzgerald used the same technique in The Great Gatsby (one of Salinger’s favorite books), where an effective leitmotif was Gatsby’s habit of calling people “old sport”—a phrase that did more to characterize him as affected upper crust than it did to describe the people he addressed. Similarly, in The Catcher in the Rye we have the often repeated “goddamn,” “madman” and “phoney.” Such words characterize Holden more than the people he describes. The use of leitmotifs is one way Salinger achieves a unique voice for his protagonist. The frequent use of italics, careful attention to diction (general word choice), and repetition all add to the sound of Holden’s voice. … No one used voice better than Salinger, and if you pay attention to the way he captures his main character in The Catcher in the Rye … you’ll surely be learning the technique from a master.

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