James Salter, West Point graduate, fighter pilot, novelist, film director, lady killer, and mountain climber, died last Friday suddenly at his local gymnasium in Sag Harbor, Long Island at the age of 90.
Salter never attracted a mass audience and consequently never wound up included in last century’s list of “great American writers”, but sophisticated readers did read him with deep respect and always kind of wondered exactly why that was the case. I suppose the combination of Salter’s hyper-masculine point of view and the gem-like perfection and careful stoical restraint of his prose style somehow failed to capture the attention of the popular culture in our hyper-democratic age. Salter’s perspective reeked of elitism, and he never trafficked at all in conventional archetypes.
I expect he would have enjoyed more money and larger public recognition, but Salter never took any of the conventional writer’s shortcuts to obtain them. He never manufactured a public persona (like Papa Hemingway) nor even a specifically recognizable genre of writing of his own. Each of Salter’s novels is very different from the others. There is a kind of stubborn authenticity about Salter.
His 1998 autobiography, Burning the Days, struck a sudden bell in the consciousness of the establishment media. From being an author lucky to be favored with a quick one-column review in the rear pages, Salter suddenly became, in his latter years, “the best writer you’ve never read.” I expect he smiled ironically at that line.