“I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make a big splash.”

Those prescient words — uttered by J.D. Salinger’s precocious Franny Glass in his 1955 novel Franny and Zooey — would come to define the last 50 years of life for one of America’s stubbornest, most beloved authors.

Salinger, who last week died at the age of 91 in his New Hampshire estate, was known to most as the creator of Holden Caulfield — the fidgety, curious and wild-eyed character in his 1951 masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye.

Despite three novels and one odd short story collection — all classic works in their own right — Salinger could never shake the fame that Catcher wrought.

Caulfield’s angsty persona became a rallying cry for impressionable teens everywhere. He was brash and sharp-witted, yet still naïve and misguided — a blueprint for generations of writers ranging from Jack Kerouac (Maggie Cassidy and On the Road) and Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar) to Joan Didion (Play It as It Lays), Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and countless others.

But although Caulfield may be Salinger’s definitive character, the author probably had more in common with Franny Glass (Caulfield’s distant cousin). Like Caulfield, Glass is disillusioned and stubbornly self-aware, but rather than lashing out in a quixotic New York odyssey, she turns inward — stuck on the simplicity of rural peasant life and incessant religious prayer.

Glass is no outsider. With her good looks, talent and natural abilities, she could have been — as Salinger was — the consummate, elite insider. But she found her collegiate acting success to be stifling and abruptly quit her troupe in search of something more privately fulfilling and, perhaps, transcendent. Looking back on Salinger’s turn as a recluse, it’s relatively easy to draw parallels between him and Glass — it was as if this character was his way of informing the world he was through writing for critics and audiences.

Perhaps it’s impossible to find out what the famed author did in seclusion since his about-face from the public world. Did he, like his Franny Glass, become baffled and entranced by spiritual matters? Did he retreat to his estate to make some grand posthumous statement about humanity? Did he create his own fictional universe to inhabit? Or did he just simply crack up — weighed down by the unrelenting spotlight of fame?

We’ll know soon enough what Salinger has left in New Hampshire. For years, writers and critics have speculated that there could be dozens of dusty novels lining the shelves of his home, just waiting to be published. That may be wishful thinking heaped on by generations of expectations and eager fans looking for any “new” Salinger material.

But even if that house is empty — if there are no more unfinished novels or literary clues — all won’t be lost. The sheer mystery of his ordeal is sure to inspire another generation or three to sift through his work and discover the enigmatic author on his own terms.

Which is, of course, exactly what he once wanted.  

erik@vcreporter.com