Friday, January 29, 2010

On the Passing of Salinger and Zinn


Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger were contemporaries, people who changed lives with language; they were also men of interesting contrasts.

They were very close in age -- on the day both men died, Zinn was 87, Salinger was 91 -- and both made an impression in the last century that endures in ours. One was a voluntary shut-in, withdrawn into a small house in New Hampshire. The other remained in the world, speaking with people, teaching and rousing them to greater social responsibility.

Howard Zinn could simultaneously be described as controversial and kind. He was a World War II bombardier, a shipyard worker who went to college on the G.I Bill and became an accomplished historian, an early activist in the civil rights movement, an engaging teacher and writer. He is best known as the author of A People's History of the United States, a history told from the perspective of working people, the oppressed, and the ignored. Personally, he espoused a belief in a democratic socialism, and an undying faith in grassroots social movements.

Salinger wrote a great novel and some other excellent published works before shutting himself into the house and refusing to publish after 1965. At that time, Zinn had just begun teaching at Boston University, having been fired from his position at Spelman College for his political activity.

Rumor has it that Salinger went on writing for his own pleasure, and that there may be at least two novels in manuscript locked away in safes. They may or may not ever see print. Somehow I am not curious to see them. Did he spend his time examining life, or hiding from it? I don't know.


Perhaps Salinger was a spiritual recluse -- a long-ago mistress claims he was interested in meditation and eastern spirituality. He seems, however, to have been engaged more in pushing away the world than retreating for contemplation. For Mr. Zinn's part, he reportedly died of cardiac arrest while swimming in Santa Monica. He was in town to give a lecture: engaging people, encouraging hope and discouraging cynicism, until both men's final day on earth.

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