I guess I should be writing about Howard Zinn today. Zinn, who as a professor at Spelman College in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was an early faculty supporter of student civil rights agitation. Zinn, who wrote SNCC: The New Abolitionists, one of the first books on the student organizing of the sixties. Zinn, who was fired from his — tenured — position at Spelman for siding with student activists against the administration.

But I don’t want to write about Zinn today, as much as I love his work and his story. I want to write about JD Salinger.

I don’t know when I first read The Catcher in the Rye. Probably it was in junior high school. I knew about Elvis Presley by then, and Buddy Holly. I wouldn’t have seen Rebel Without a Cause yet, though, so Holden Caulfield was my first real introduction to 1950s teen alienation.

When right-wingers wax nostalgic about the “simpler time” of fifties myth, segregation and sexism are the standard rebuttals. But Holden Caulfield taught me early that the era was no picnic even for white boys. I never bought into the idea of the 1950s as a golden age, and Holden Caulfield was a big part of why.

Catcher, published in 1951, belongs to the postwar forties as much as the fifties, but Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Salinger’s two final books, occupy the same space between the fifties and the sixties as the television show Mad Men. (Each book was published in the early sixties, and each was assembled from material written in the mid-to-late fifties.)

When I became interested, like any young radical, in the activism of the sixties, I was drawn to the stories of the early part of the decade: the Freedom Riders and the Free Speech Movement and those wonderful dorky photos of neatly groomed early-sixties SDSers grinning and half-embarrassedly raising their fists. For me, the sixties was always more Bob Moses and Casey Hayden than Jerry Rubin and Bernardine Dohrn, and so when I became a historian of that era, it was natural for me to stretch it out, to step back to a larger view. (My dissertation, a history of a major student activist organization, opens in 1946, and continues through the end of the seventies.)

JD Salinger was never particularly political, and by the early sixties he had retreated out of sight to his New Hampshire compound. But his books sold millions of copies throughout the decade, and his characters spoke to that generation’s young people in a powerfully intimate and immediate way.

JD Salinger, creature of the fifties, helped in a very real way to bring the sixties into being. I’ve understood this, and argued it, for a long time, but it never struck me until today how much my own youthful Salinger fandom shaped my understanding of both decades, and how much it smoothed the way for the historian’s understanding of postwar youth culture that I would eventually embrace.

Thanks, Jerry.