“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
—I Corinthians 13:11
Though his only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, is one of the sturdiest best-sellers of the post-World War II era—a staple of high-school English courses, and a standard according to which every newly published tale of tortured adolescence is inevitably judged—Jerome David Salinger is probably as famous for his elusiveness as for his work. He has been called “the Greta Garbo of American literature,” and the more one thinks about it, the more appropriate the epithet seems to be. As Garbo’s early retirement into seclusion was triggered by the disastrous reception of her movie Two-Faced Woman, so Salinger’s decision to go into personal and professional hiding appears to have been provoked by the refusal of both the reviewers and the public to approve of the direction in which his last book—“Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction” (two stories published together in 1963)—indicated he was developing. As in the case of Garbo, though, Salinger’s insistence upon being left alone served only to increase the public’s curiosity about him, thus preserving his celebrity status throughout a long period of professional inactivity; indeed, it might reasonably be argued that his. love of privacy has, in the years since his departure from the active literary scene, made him a “legend” in a way that his work alone could never have done. Four decades after Salinger vouchsafed Catcher to the world, Gatsby-like. gossip about the master’s past, present, and future activities continues to make the rounds, and curious folk still make the pilgrimage to his Cornish, New Hampshire, sanctuary in hopes of glimpsing him through a hole in the fence. In short—and herein lies the ultimate irony in this most bizarre set of circumstances—it is precisely his fanatically enforced privacy that, more than anything else, has helped to place J. D. Salinger’s life and not his writing at the focus of public scrutiny.
Given this state of affairs, it seems likely that Ian Hamilton’s forthcoming para-biography, J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life, will generate an enormous amount of interest.1 I call it a “para-biography” because to use the word “biography,” in this instance, would be egregiously misleading. Mr. Hamilton, a distinguished English poet who brought forth a solid if somewhat fact-happy life of Robert Lowell four years ago, has simply been unable to gather enough material to produce a full-fledged biography of Salinger. This is not to say that the book lacks detail. Indeed, it is altogether too plentifully stocked with gratuitous trivia—with, for example, quotations from the movie reviews Salinger contributed to his college newspaper and bits and pieces of every letter (apparently) that Hamilton could get his hands on. What the book is short on, however, is detail that is illuminating and appropriate. Though Hamilton usefully summarizes Salinger’s literary career—giving us synopses, reviews, contract arrangements—he does not even come close to providing a vivid, coherent rendering of Salinger’s life. The subject never really comes into focus. And the scraps of personal material that Hamilton has been able to collect—most of which concern Salinger’s life in military school, college, and the army (the three periods when he was forced, day and night, into the company of others)—are frequently either misconstrued or overanalyzed. (Most of this information has previously appeared in print anyway, notably in J. D. Salinger by Warren French, the revised edition of which appeared in 1976 from Twayne Publishers.)
Stylistically, the book is a disappointment. The prose lacks fastidiousness; grammatical errors abound. The most annoying stylistic feature is the constant and inexplicable—and often very awkward—shifting of tense. More important, Hamilton sometimes draws unwarranted conclusions from highly tenuous bits of evidence—a habit that he evinces in the very first lines of the book. “J. D. Salinger,” he writes, “has often said that he ‘started writing at the age of fifteen,’ as if this was when, for him, real life began.” That, to my mind, is a most peculiar “as if”; certainly most of Salinger’s fiction suggests that, much to the contrary, real life ended for him at the age of fifteen. But Hamilton’s reason for beginning his book with such a slippery piece of logic soon becomes clear: having discovered next to nothing about Salinger’s first fifteen years, he wishes to justify that period’s almost complete omission from the book by underrating its importance to Salinger’s development. For Hamilton’s coverage of Salinger’s youth consists of little more than an assortment of vital statistics. We learn that Salinger’s mother was Irish; that his father, Sol, an importer of cheese and ham, was a Jew, born in Chicago in 1888, apparently a willful sort, perhaps the son of a Cleveland rabbi; and that the writer’s only sibling is a sister, Doris, fully eight years his senior. We gather also that the cheese and ham importing business flourished during the writer’s boyhood, for the family kept moving, in those years, to increasingly affluent neighborhoods. When Jerome was born on New Year’s Day in 1919, the Salingers lived far uptown, at 3681 Broadway; later that year they moved to 113th Street; by 1928 they were at 221 West Eighty-second; and four years afterwards they took occupancy of an apartment on Park Avenue at Ninety-first Street. In his early years Jerome attended public schools; later he transferred to the McBurney School on West Sixty-fourth Street, where he accumulated a below-average academic record, reported for the school paper, and earned enthusiastic notices for his performances (invariably in female roles) in school plays. And that, essentially, is all that Hamilton gives us on the childhood of a writer whose fiction is enigmatically obsessed with the theme of childhood—whose entire oeuvre cries out for a biographer able to shed some light on the reasons for its strange fixation.
It is not till Salinger reaches military school that we begin to get a picture of him—albeit a fuzzy one.
It is not till Salinger reaches military school that we begin to get a picture of him—albeit a fuzzy one. At age fifteen, Hamilton tells us, Jerome was suddenly plucked out of McBurney and enrolled in the Valley Forge Military Academy in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where he continued to write and act. (Because his application to the academy was “hastily filled out” by his father, Hamilton deduces that Sol was, for some reason or other, “out of patience” with Jerome; and he uses this conclusion, in turn, to support his hypothesis that father and son didn’t get along well.) Salinger, who appears to have been the Oscar Wilde of Valley Forge, is remembered by former classmates for his “sardonic wit,” “sizzling wisecracks,” and “sophistication and humor.” “He always talked in a pretentious manner,” recalls one former cadet, “as if he were reciting something from Shakespeare.” “His conversation,” remembers another, “was frequently laced with sarcasm about others and the silly routines we had to obey and follow at school.” To his friends at Valley Forge, most of whom were small-town Pennsylvania boys, Salinger was the “big city boy” who “knew about Broadway shows, and read The New Yorker and Esquire,” and who dreamed of writing movies in Hollywood. A telling example of Hamilton’s tendency to cover less-than-crucial material at excessive length is his discussion of the 1936 Valley Forge yearbook, of which Salinger was the literary editor. Hamilton devotes several pages to an overly ingenious analysis of the yearbook’s utterly routine contents, which he assumes were entirely the work of Salinger. Hamilton purports to detect a subtle irony in the yearbook, and in his defense of this notion he seems (not for the only time, either) to employ circular logic. If, he argues, Salinger wrote the effusive Class History, the fawning tribute to the school’s founder, and the pious Class Song, then surely they are meant to be, on their deepest level, parodic; if so, then surely they are by Salinger. Having thus established that the young Salinger was simultaneously sycophantic and insubordinate, Hamilton proceeds to draw a parallel between this apparent two-faced quality of the writer-to-be and the combination of nonconformity and submissiveness that characterizes Holden Caulfield, the boy hero of The Catcher in the Rye.
At times, it should be noted, Hamilton does make too deliberate an attempt to identify Caulfieldian traits in young Jerome. Yet the fact remains that there are a surprising number of parallels between Salinger’s life at Valley Forge and Holden’s life at the fictional Pencey Prep. Hamilton informs us, for instance, that there actually was a boy at Valley Forge who, like James Castle in The Catcher in the Rye, fell to his death from a dormitory window; that at Valley Forge, Salinger, like Holden Caulfield, chronically used the expression “a prince of a guy” to describe people he disliked; that Salinger’s roommate, Ned Davis, was apparently the model for Holden’s narcissistic roommate Stradlater; and that one night Salinger “became so impossibly drunk and ‘Holden Caulfield-ish,’ vowing to break out of the school once and for all, that a close friend had to fell him with a knockout punch to prevent him from waking the militia.”
Like Holden, too, Salinger was (to use a word that is nearly ubiquitous in his fiction) something of a “phony.” Following his graduation from Valley Forge, a year at New York University (though he left “no trace of ever having been there”), a job entertaining the passengers on a cruise ship, and several months in Vienna on business for his father, Salinger entered Ursinus College, where he proceeded to behave like a full-blown snob. His purported reason for attending Ursinus—a science-oriented Pennsylvania school whose students were principally middle-class Pennsylvania Dutch locals—was that “he needed a quiet place to write.” But why Ursinus? Hamilton surmises that it may have been easier for Salinger to get into than other colleges: since it was near Valley Forge, perhaps “some local strings were pulled” to get Salinger in. Yet one has the feeling that Ursinus—rather than, say, NYU or Columbia or some other Ivy League university—filled a crucial need for Salinger in that it provided a place where he could feel superior to, and easily get away with patronizing, his fellow students. Indeed, after several years of being the “big city boy” at Valley Forge, he may well have found it intolerable being just another cell in the NYU student body. At Ursinus, as the memories of his classmates demonstrate, he played to the hilt the part of the rich cosmopolite, the experienced world traveller, the gifted great-writer-to-be. He conducted himself, apparently, as if he were better than everyone and everything around him; in a school full of students who considered college education a privilege and who felt (in the words of one of them) that they “had to make the best possible use of it and had the obligation to pass on to others as much as possible,” Salinger’s arrogant indifference to such matters as classroom attendance (his arch, New Yorker-ish campus newspaper column was called “Skipped Diploma”) was by itself enough to win him notoriety. If the girls admired him for his veneer of worldly sophistication (not to mention his height and good looks), the other boys envied him these attributes. Yet he kept his distance, and former classmates remember him primarily as a “loner,” underneath whose flashy image one or two of them were insightful enough to perceive a boy who, like Holden, was at bottom confused and disturbed by the grown-up world and not quite certain how to make a place for himself in it. “When we knew Jerry,” recalls Frances Glassmoyer (whose name inspired that of Salinger’s character Franny Glass), “he was Holden Caulfield, although when The Catcher in the Rye burst in upon the literary world, he expressed surprise when I recognized him as Holden. I guess he never knew his adolescence was showing.”
Plainly, Salinger’s “phoniness,” his supercilious air, was a sign of insecurity. But why was he so insecure?
Plainly, Salinger’s “phoniness,” his supercilious air, was a sign of insecurity. But why was he so insecure? Born into a family that lived on a modest block of upper Broadway, did he feel out of place in the Park Avenue apartment that his family had moved into when he was thirteen? Did the other young men in his New York set, most of whom had presumably been born into their wealth, intimidate him? Did he refuse to take school seriously because he was secretly afraid of not doing well enough? Did he, indeed, play the part of the sophisticated New Yorker at Ursinus precisely because, when he was in New York, he felt relatively unsophisticated? One begins to think so. Hamilton, who appears to identify with Salinger’s contempt for the Ursinus crowd, has little or nothing to say on these matters, except to observe that whereas “[o]utside New York the young Salinger could pose as a sophisticate,” in the city itself “there must always have been a Scott Fitzgerald-style discomfiture about his college pedigree: who else did he, or anybody, know who had been schooled at Valley Forge and polished at Ursinus, Collegeville?” But one suspects that Salinger’s discomfiture preceded his years at Ursinus and even at Valley Forge—that, in fact, a nagging sense of being inferior to the born-and-bred Park Avenue types may go some way toward explaining his calculated phoniness in the company of his Pennsylvania schoolmates.
Whatever the case may be, it is clear at least that leaving college and entering the literary world did not stop Salinger from looking down his nose at one and all. Though his first stories were obviously manufactured for a middlebrow audience and saw publication, to his delight, in such well-paying and widely circulated “slicks” as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and Esquire (as well as Story, whose founding editor Whit Burnett was an early mentor), Salinger’s thrill at being published in their pages soon gave way to haughty disapproval of every little detail of their modus operandi.2 The Post in particular irritated him by changing his stories’ titles and illustrating them with silly drawings; though this sort of thing was standard practice, a few such experiences were enough to make Salinger dispatch an angry letter to Burnett saying that he was no longer going to write for the “slicks.” In later years, his disdain would continually attach itself, in like fashion and upon similar grounds—margin size, cover design, jacket photograph, typeface, advertising copy, binding—to one book publisher after another; so strong was his feeling about such matters that in several cases his objections to publishers’ handling of his work caused Salinger to break off longstanding personal and professional relationships. (Similarly, after seeing the results of the sale of Catcher and “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” to—respectively—the Book-of-the-Month Club and Samuel Goldwyn, he forbade the future sale of his work to book clubs and film studios.)
Joining these institutions in Salinger’s disesteem were those individuals whom he looked upon as “professional” readers—that is, English professors and literary critics. Referring to a controversy between Sinclair Lewis and the critic Bernard De Voto over the merits of Lewis’s novel Arrowsmith, Salinger observed that De Voto was probably in the right but had “no right to be right”; in a just world, novelists like Lewis would be criticized not by “small-time” opinionizers like De Voto but “by men of their own size”—by, that is, writers of fiction. (In opposition to the professional reader, naturally, Salinger placed the “amateur reader,” to whom, in part, he dedicated his last book.) Salinger also looked down upon women. According to Hamilton, “there were two kinds of girls: those he despised immediately and those he fell in love with and afterwards semidespised.” Salinger’s references to women in his letters are almost invariably patronizing: he describes them as “little girls” or “little numbers”; his girlfriend Oona O’Neill (who later married Charlie Chaplin) is referred to as “little Oona.” Even his fellow servicemen, during his World War Two stint in the Counter Intelligence Corps, did not earn his respect; he treated them with what Hamilton describes as a “sour or condescending aloofness.”
There is, then, a long list of individuals, groups, and institutions that Salinger seems to have looked upon with scorn. Alas, so catholic was his contempt that it would probably be wrong to leave his own name off the list. For it seems probable that, in addition to everyone else, Salinger despised himself—and did so, in large part, for the same reason that Holden Caulfield despised himself: because, though he looked down upon the fashionable and phony, he couldn’t resist the temptation to be himself a member of the fashionable and phony crowd. Holden speaks of his classmates at Pencey Prep as having “this goddamn secret fraternity that I was too yellow not to join.” To Salinger, the Park Avenue set, Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, and Harold Ross’s magazine were, taken together, exactly this—a “secret fraternity” that he saw through but was too yellow, too insecure, not to strive to be (or, at least, to pretend to be) a part of. For him, it was somehow never possible to live normally, in equality and friendliness, among his fellow adults; he had either to move among them with a haughty superciliousness—all the while hating himself for doing so—or to keep apart from them altogether.
It should hardly be surprising that a man who found it so hard to relate maturely to his peers should have created a body of work that is distinguished primarily by its nostalgia for childhood and its hostility toward the conventions and responsibilities of adult life. In “Franny,” a college girl who can’t cope with adulthood suffers a nervous breakdown; in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” a woman collapses in anguish over her sweet, spent youth; in “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters,” a young man who is “too happy” to marry deserts his fiancee on their wedding day; in “A Perfect Day for Bananatish,” the same young man, having married after all, has a wistful encounter at the beach with a small girl and kills himself immediately after in his hotel room, while his wife sleeps nearby; and in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” a soldier driven to a nervous breakdown by the horrors of the adult world is redeemed by a child’s affection. And so it goes in Salinger’s fiction: one protagonist after another finds communication with grownups difficult or unfulfilling and is drawn instead to children. Some of the resulting encounters (Holden and his sister Phoebe, Sergeant X and Esmé) are among the most poignant episodes in Salinger’s fiction; some are just plain weird.
None of these fictional episodes, however, is quite as odd as a story that Hamilton tells about Salinger. Within weeks after relocating, in 1953, to his present modest residence in the small town of Cornish, New Hampshire (a move that recalls Holden Caulfield’s escapist dream of living in a cabin by a brook), Salinger befriended a number of high-school students; they were, it seems, not protégés or admirers so much as they were “pals” whom he regularly attended football games with, consorted with at a local coffee shop, and entertained frequently at his house. “He was just like one of the gang,” one of these young people later remembered. (One immediately thinks of Holden’s dream of being in a field of rye with numberless children: “Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me.”) This most peculiar idyll was ended when two of Salinger’s young friends interviewed him for the high-school page of the Claremont Daily Eagle and the interview appeared not on the high-school page but in the front of the paper, as an Eagle “scoop.” Apparently feeling betrayed, Salinger proceeded, in a striking display of childishness, to sever his ties with all of the students; very soon afterwards, he had a high fence constructed around his house.
Why? One has the impression that Salinger’s teenaged interviewers, by behaving too much like grownup reporters, violated his sentimental illusions about youth. His fiction makes it plain that Salinger enjoys thinking of young people as magically wise and innocent beings, immune from the phony erudition, the sneaky cleverness, and the moral corruption that plague adults. Not that the children in Salinger’s fiction are Rebeccas of Sunnybrook Farm; on the contrary, they are almost invariably smart, fresh, precocious (sometimes quite improbably so), and just this side of obnoxious. Nevertheless, time and again it is children, in Salinger’s work, that embody goodness and decency and a sort of great and simple cosmic knowingness. Consider, for instance, “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” one of his two or three most accomplished stories, which was originally published in 1950 in The New Yorker and reprinted in Nine Stories (1954). The protagonist tells us that he is writing the story in honor of the forthcoming wedding of a young lady whom he met six years earlier, during World War Two, when she was a thirteen-year-old English girl and he was a young American soldier stationed in Devon. He first saw her singing in a church choir, and met her a few minutes later in a tearoom; a titled and conspicuously well-to-do war orphan, she was friendly, forward, articulate, and rather snobbish (“You seem quite intelligent for an American,” she said). After telling him about her dead parents, of whom she spoke in an extremely affectionate but formal manner, she asked him to write a short story for her—“I prefer stories,” she said, “about squalor”—and then bade him goodbye, hoping that he would return from the war “with all your faculties intact.” The second half of the story finds the solider (who now refers to himself as “Sergeant X”) in Bavaria, a few weeks after V-E Day, headquartered in a house that once belonged to a Nazi woman. A book in the house contains the handwritten inscription (in German): “Dear God, life is hell”; the soldier, who has suffered a nervous breakdown and seems to be in desperate emotional straits, appends, in English, a postscript from Dostoevsky: “Fathers and teachers, I ponder ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” Then after he tosses a few disaffected, patronizing jokes at a dumb-but-amiable corporal named Clay (the same sort of jokes, by the way, that Zooey Glass will wound his mother with in “Zooey”), the soldier receives a sweet letter, delayed a year or so in transit, from Esmé, with which she encloses her late father’s watch, its crystal broken. Suddenly, thanks to the letter, the soldier feels sleepy, “almost ecstatically” sleepy, for the first time; we are meant to understand that this turn of events is a hopeful one indeed, for “you always take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”
One has the impression that Salinger’s teenaged interviewers violated his sentimental illusions about youth.
If “Esmé” is among Salinger’s finer stories, it is largely because the protagonist’s antipathy for adult life is understandable—he has seen, in the horrors of war, the evils of which the human soul is capable—and because the girl is charmingly drawn. But the change effected in the soldier by Esmé’s affectionate letter is, alas, less than thoroughly plausible. A widely overlooked detail in the story is that the soldier (unlike Salinger, who in many other ways is clearly his prototype) has a wife back home in the States—a wife who has, apparently, been unable to do for his emotional stability what this child, a virtual stranger, has accomplished with a single letter. Viewed from this perspective, the story seems to say less about the redemptive power of children’s innocent love than (unintentionally) about the ability of intelligent and perceptive writers to deceive themselves with sentimental conceits.
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948), also reprinted in Nine Stories, similarly contrasts the heaven of children’s love with the hell of the adult world. Like “Esmé,” the story falls into two distinct parts. In the first, we meet Muriel, a young wife in a Florida beach hotel, who, after reading a women’s magazine article titled “Sex is Fun—or Hell,” speaks by telephone to her mother in New York. Like most of the women in Salinger’s fiction, both Muriel and her mother are superficial, insensitive, gabby, their dialogue peppered with references to fancy Manhattan stores. The subject of their conversation is Muriel’s disturbed husband, Seymour Glass, who has been in a mental hospital, who has dubbed Muriel “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” and who (the mother fears) “may completely lose control of himself” during the vacation. Her authority for this pronouncement is a psychiatrist with whom Muriel’s father has consulted (like many obtuse and callous characters in Salinger, these women believe religiously in modern psychiatry). One thing that the women find particularly “awful” and “sad” about Seymour is his extraordinary enthusiasm for a certain twentieth-century German poet (unnamed, but indubitably Rilke). From Muriel’s hotel room we move to the beach, where Seymour chats about olives and Little Black Sambo with a toddler named Sybil (who calls him “see more”) and then takes the child into the ocean to catch “bananafish.” “This is a perfect day for bananafish,” he tells her, and proceeds to explain that bananafish “lead a very tragic life,” chasing down bananas in bananaholes and eating so many that they can’t get out again, eventually perishing of banana fever. Leaving Sybil in the water, Seymour returns to his hotel room, sees Muriel lying on the bed, pulls a gun out of a suitcase, and shoots himself in the head.
The story has considerable strengths: the style is vivid, the structure taut, the interlude with Sybil both charming and disquieting. (Note that “Bananafish” is, in a way, “Esmé” in reverse: the first half demonstrates the grim reality of adult life, the second presents a friendly encounter between an adult and a child.) But what are we supposed to make of it all? Apparently we are meant to recognize in Seymour a sensitive soul who can “see more” profoundly than the common herd into the heart of man’s darkness, and who is consequently incapable of living comfortably in the crude and callous world of adults; like a bananafish, he has taken in too much—has, that is, overloaded his fragile psyche—and feels trapped, isolated, doomed. Yet the more closely one examines the story, the more one comes to recognize it as a facile (albeit very well executed) exercise in what may be called suicide chic. Salinger’s empathy, one cannot help but notice, is not distributed as evenly as his attention: we are expected to understand and identify with Seymour—to take his side, as it were, against the phony adult world—yet Salinger is not at all concerned with having us understand or sympathize with Muriel’s view of things. Though we are meant to forgive Seymour’s considerable flaws (egocentrism, irresponsibility, cruelty, intellectual snobbery) as the understandable reaction of a helpless, delicate soul to the adult world, we are meant to see in Muriel’s flaws an indication of how vicious and vapid that world can be. This blinkered vision is typical of Salinger’s stories. Continually they suggest to us that it’s Salinger, the protagonist, perhaps an innocent child or two, and we the readers (the amateur readers, anyway) against everybody else of voting age. That some children can be as reprehensible as some adults is never acknowledged. And there’s hardly any indication in these stories that human frailties can not only divide us but bind us together—that they can, in fact, help make us look into each other and see ourselves, and take strength.
The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Salinger’s only novel, was a long time in the making. The name Caulfield (which the declared movie-hater Salinger borrowed from his favorite movie star, Joan Caulfield) appears in several early stories; Vincent Caulfield, in “The Last Day of the Last Furlough,” published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1944, has a younger brother named Holden. Two Holden Caulfield stories that were forerunners of Catcher appeared during the 1940s. One was accepted by The New Yorker in 1941 but was never published in its original form; a revised version, titled “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” appeared there five years later. The other, “I’m Crazy” (consisting essentially of Holden’s leave-taking of Mr. Spencer and of the episode in Phoebe’s bedroom), was printed in Collier’s in 1945. (A descriptive tag billed it as “The heartwarming story of a kid whose only fault lay in understanding people so well that most of them were baffled by him and only a very few would believe in him.”)
If Catcher is Salinger’s single most effective published work, it is largely because in its pages he is more objective than usual, more distanced from and clear-headed about his protagonist’s solipsism. It is also partly because, in this case, for once, the Salinger protagonist who despises adult life and longs for childhood is not a young adult with an acute case of arrested development; rather, he is himself a child (or, more correctly, a boy at the threshold of manhood) whose vanity, unreason, and unconscious hypocrisy—and whose anguish and confusion over his vanishing innocence—are more easily forgivable, and less severely psychopathic, than they would be in a young man a few years older.
The story of Catcher is perhaps the best known in postwar American literature. Holden Caulfield is sixteen, the middle child of a wealthy corporate lawyer and his wife whose family occupies half of a floor in an apartment building near Central Park; he’s lately sprouted up very quickly to a height of six feet two-and-a-half inches and has just been expelled from his fourth prep school, Pencey Prep in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, for failing four out of five subjects. (He passed English.) Since he doesn’t want to remain at Pencey for the last few days remaining in the autumn semester (he’s “lonesome” there), and can’t bring himself to face his parents before the news of his dismissal reaches them by mail, he leaves school abruptly on a Saturday night in December and spends the next two days and nights gadding around Manhattan. During this brief but intense odyssey he gets shaken down in a seedy hotel by a prostitute named Sunny and a pimp named Maurice; has drinks with a sometime school buddy (who describes his ex-girlfriend as “the whore of New Hampshire”); tries unsuccessfully to persuade his friend Sally Hayes to escape with him to some place far away where they can live simply and anonymously; and runs to an ex-teacher, Mr. Antolini, for refuge only to have the man put the moves on him. In the course of narrating the events of this lost weekend (or, as he puts it, “this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas”), Holden manages to describe nearly everything he comes across—and virtually everybody older than he is—as “corny” or “phony” or “depressing.” He is, as his little sister Phoebe complains, down on everything: “You don’t like anything that’s happening.” The only people he really loves, or can even tolerate, it seems, are Phoebe and his older brother D. B., a Hollywood screenwriter. (His father is also in show business, after a fashion: he invests frequently in Broadway plays.) To be sure, he has a touching affection for the occasional odd, innocent, and seemingly insignificant memory. For example, when he discovers that his roommate, a make-out artist named Stradlater, is about to go on a date with a friend of his, Jane Gallagher, he remembers fondly how, when he and Jane used to play checkers, “She wouldn’t move any of her kings. What she’d do, when she’d get a king, she wouldn’t move it. She’d just leave it in the back row. She’d get them all lined up in the back row. Then she'd never use them. She just liked the way they looked when they were in the back row.” At sixteen he’s already crippled by nostalgia.
His fiction makes it plain that Salinger enjoys thinking of young people as magically wise and innocent beings.
Like Seymour Glass and other Salinger protagonists, Holden doesn’t want any part of a world which seems to him an obscene place full of prevarication and pretentiousness. But he is a Salinger hero with a difference. Instead of painting him as some sort of mad, sainted isolato, Salinger makes it plain that Holden is an essentially normal teenager, temporarily disturbed, who is himself guilty of many of the things for which he faults others. Though he claims to hate movies, for instance, he has seen The 39 Steps ten times; though he calls himself a pacifist, he physically attacks his Pencey roommate Stradlater for seducing Jane Gallagher; though he criticizes his schoolmates for their “lousy manners,” he, for his part, is frequently rude and insulting; though he hates dishonesty, he admits himself to be “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life”; and though he is repulsed by “big snobs,” he acknowledges having chosen to room with Stradlater on account of his wealth and sneers at the provincial ignorance of three young Seattle women whom he meets at a seedy New York hotel. It is, in short, the obvious unreliability of many of Holden’s negative impressions that gives the book a levelheadedness that many of Salinger’s stories lack.
Holden is a boy possessed by memories; and the memory that haunts him most of all is that of his late brother Allie, whose death three years earlier appears to have much to do with his present emotional disturbance. Holden recalls that soon after Allie’s death, his parents almost had him psychoanalyzed because, in his despair, he broke all the windows in the garage of their summer house in Maine. Though three years have passed, death—not only Allie’s death but mortality itself—continues to prey upon his mind. Throughout Catcher, old people (Mr. Spencer; a visiting Pencey alumnus; the characters played by Lunt and Fontanne in I Know My Love) disconcert and depress him; on more than one occasion he mentions his own tombstone, upon which he imagines someone writing an obscenity. If Holden has no interest in becoming a responsible and mature adult, it seems to be largely because he knows that adulthood leads to death—and death is something with which he has simply not come to terms. Though it has been driven home to him in the past couple of years that he lives in a world of sinfulness and mortality, he has not yet accepted his inability to escape either of these things, and the force and fierceness with which childhood has been taken from him (his brother’s demise, his speedy growth) have made it increasingly difficult for him to respond to life with anything but aimless panic, a desperate fear of the future, and an unmodulated, undifferentiated attachment to the past. At the end of the novel he says:
D. B. asked me what I thought about all this stuff I just finished telling you about. I didn’t know what the hell to say. If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it. I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
This is, for a Salinger protagonist, an unusual sort of despair; it is the despair not of a grown-up neurotic or psychopath who refuses to face adulthood, but of a troubled boy—a boy for. whom we must feel sympathy and with whom (in some small way, at least) we cannot help but identify. It is, indeed, the poignant credibility of Holden Caulfield that is largely responsible for The Catcher in the Rye’s being not only Salinger’s best single published work but also one of the few small classics of postwar American fiction.
Between 1954, when Nine Stories was issued, and 1965, when Salinger ceased publishing fiction, a total of five Salinger stories saw print. All five appeared in The New Yorker, and all five are about a family named Glass, the oldest of whose seven children, Seymour, had already been introduced—and killed off—in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Like Holden, the Glass children with whom Salinger is most concerned are emotional cripples, aloof and superior in their relation to the adult world. It’s a situation which might be very compelling but for the fact that Salinger seems to identify much too strongly with them, and thus tends to present them not as pathetic, maladjusted misfits but as romantic egoists who are incalculably finer and more fascinating (not to mention more brilliant and beautiful) than regular folk. The first of these stories, the sharp, lively “Franny” (1955), takes place several years after Seymour’s suicide and concerns the nervous breakdown that Franny Glass, a college student who is Seymour’s youngest sister, suffers when she visits her boyfriend Lane Coutell on his campus the weekend of the Yale game. Like Holden Caulfield, Franny is mightily displeased by the human race—whose manifold uglinesses she’d apparently never had a good look at before going away to college. She tells Lane that she is “just so sick of pedants and conceited little tearer-downers I could scream”; her poet-professors aren’t “real poets. They’re just people that write poems that get published and anthologized all over the place, but they’re not poets . . . . If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful!” Like Holden, she has unreasonable and romantic expectations of her fellow human beings: “I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect.” And: “I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting—it is, it is. I don’t care what anybody says.” (As should be clear by now, Franny even talks like Holden, peppering her conversation liberally with the expressions “you know,” “I mean,” “God,” “goddam,” and “and all.”)
Franny, in short, is a noble-minded, idealistic young lady who is unable to accept the compromises and the imperfections—and, it should be added, the raw, ugly sexuality—of adulthood. Lane, neatly enough for the story’s purposes, is her exact opposite, all untempered ego and sex: he brags obnoxiously about the possibility of publishing a paper he wrote for an English course (unlike Franny, he’s more interested in publishing his ideas than in the ideas themselves) and complains pretentiously about Flaubert’s lack of “testicularity.” Like “Bananafish,” then, “Franny” centers upon a contrast between the two leading characters, one of whom is a sensitive Glass and the other of whom is an unfeeling fool who likes to listen to himself talk; as in the earlier story, Salinger clearly wants us to sympathize with the former and to see in the latter the personification of the world’s obtuseness and insensitivity. But once again he has loaded the dice to a ridiculous extent, depicting his well-adjusted character as a self-important lout—as if to say that this is the only sort of person who can function smoothly in society. (As in “Bananafish,” one cannot help but wonder what these two extraordinarily incompatible people ever saw in one another.)
The principal difference between Holden Caulfield and Franny Glass is religion.
The principal difference between Holden Caulfield and Franny Glass is religion. In Catcher, there are few explicit references to it; the most memorable one is Holden’s coffee-shop encounter with a couple of nuns, whom, once or twice afterwards, he has a vague desire to see again. That’s the extent of Holden’s interest in religion. Franny is something else again. Running away from the world, she dives into the arms of God; fervently she tells Lane (who is, naturally, a devout Freudian) about the power of prayer, claiming that if you keep repeating the name of God, “You get to see God.” She’s been reading a book, she tells him, called The Way of a Pilgrim, about a man who walks “all over Russia, looking for somebody who can tell him how to pray incessantly.” Eventually she goes to the ladies’ room and collapses.
That is the end of “Franny,” but not of the chronicle of Franny’s nervous collapse. Salinger picks up the action the following morning in “Zooey” (1957), which is four times as long as its predecessor and was reprinted with it in Franny and Zooey (1961). The style of the second story represents a distinct falling-off from the crispness of the first; Salinger opens with a windy, self-indulgent passage in which the narrator introduces himself as the writer Buddy Glass, Franny’s oldest living brother and apparently one of the more stable members of the seven-sibling Glass clan. (As we learn later in the story, Buddy, like Salinger, lives in the woods “like a hermit.”) Apropos of the story’s wordiness, Buddy explains that “We are, all four of us [Buddy, Zooey, Franny, and their mother Bessie], blood relatives, and we speak a kind of esoteric, family language, a sort of semantic geometry in which the shortest distance between any two points is a fullish circle.” It is an apt warning, for “Zooey” and the stories that follow it are plagued by an increasingly bizarre, frustrating, and nearly pathological logorrhea; it is as if they were written not only of and by, but even exclusively for, the Glass children, as if Salinger/Buddy were trying to keep the rest of us out of the lives of this family that he has created for himself by erecting an all but insurmountable lexical fence around them.
The beginning of the story proper finds twenty-five-year-old Zooey, the youngest Glass boy, sitting in “a very full bath” in his parents’ Manhattan apartment, where he and Franny still live; in this womb-like environment, he is reading a four-year-old letter from Buddy. Zooey, we are told, is a successful television actor, small, slight, and “surpassingly handsome,” who has been fighting “a private war against narcissism . . . since he was seven or eight years old,” and who as a child appeared regularly on a radio quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child.” Indeed, between 1927 and 1943, all seven of the Glass children were, at one time or another, regular panelists on the program; all won reputations as prodigies, but none was so impressive as the brilliant eldest son, Seymour, who, with Buddy, went on to play tutor to the family’s two youngest members, Zooey and Franny. Buddy recalls in his letter how he and Seymour wanted them to “know who and what Jesus and Gautama and Lao-tse and Shankaracharya and Huineng and Sri Ramakrishna, etc., were before you knew too much or anything about Homer or Shakespeare or even Blake or Whitman, let alone George Washington and his cherry tree or the definition of a peninsula or how to parse a sentence.” We are to understand that it is because of (a) that quiz show, (b) the army of “child psychologists and professional educators” who “voraciously examined, interviewed, and poked at” them (especially Zooey) throughout their childhood, and (c) Seymour and Buddy’s offbeat metaphysical teachings, that Franny and Zooey are unstable and alienated and even more obsessed with the past than the rest of the family. As Zooey tells his mother: “This whole goddam house stinks of ghosts . . . . We’re freaks, the two of us, Franny and I . . . and both those bastards [Seymour and Buddy] are responsible.”
Indeed, though he’s been dead for seven years, Seymour is rather responsible for Franny’s breakdown. The books she’s been reading (not only The Way of a Pilgrim but its sequel, The Pilgrim Continues His Way) are from Seymour’s room; their aim, as Zooey explains to his mother, is “to wake everybody up to the need and benefits of saying the Jesus Prayer incessantly . . . . The idea being that if you call out the name long enough and regularly enough and literally from the heart, sooner or later you’ll get an answer. Not exactly an answer. A response.” To be specific, the prayer, endlessly reiterated, brings enlightenment; one enters “the reality of things,” achieves “pure consciousness”—which is to say that one utterly escapes the false reality of a world full of fools. This is a consummation for which not only Franny but Buddy and (in his time) Seymour have devoutly wished. Toward the end of the story, after Franny complains to Zooey (much as Holden does to Phoebe) about how despicable people are, he tells her—and this seems to be the moral of the piece, if moral there be—that if there aren’t any people in the world for whose sake it is worth making an effort at life, she should live and work and strive for God’s sake, because He’s always out there watching. Obviously, we are supposed to admire and be moved by the Glass children’s preoccupation with spiritual purity and incessant prayerfulness. But it’s hard not to see it all as self-destructive, psychopathic, fanatical; hard not to be disturbed by Salinger’s, and the Glasses’, blithe equation of religion and misanthropy. It is also difficult not to be irritated by that precious, tiresome, and most labored piece of fictional machinery, the late lamented children’s radio quiz show “It’s a Wise Child”—which is, after all, simply a facile contrivance designed to account, in one fell swoop, for an entire family’s emotional delinquency. It demonstrates that Salinger is more interested in having a family of incurably childlike adults to play with on paper than he is in trying to figure out how people like that really get to be that way or how they might manage to become (horrors!) emotionally healthy adults.
In “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters” (1955), Salinger jumps back in time. The story takes place on the day of Seymour’s wedding in 1942; Buddy is not only the narrator—providing yet more information about the Glass family and “It’s a Wise Child”—but the protagonist. A twenty-three-year-old serviceman stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, he travels to New York and appears at the Manhattan brownstone where the ceremony is to take place only to discover that Seymour has backed out. Shortly thereafter he finds himself in a car with a number of people from the wedding who are so unfavorably disposed toward Seymour that Buddy finds it more comfortable, not to admit to being his brother. As a result he ends up hearing all sorts of unflattering remarks about Seymour—that he’s “a latent homosexual and a schizoid personality,” that he’s “either never grown up or is just an absolute raving maniac of some crazy kind,” that having been on the radio as a child must have made it impossible for him to “learn to relate to normal people.” Buddy ends up taking the people to his apartment, where his sister Boo Boo’s been staying; there he comes across Seymour’s diary, in which Seymour records his fiancée Muriel’s (and Muriel’s mother’s) fears about his sanity, and his own theories: “Oh, God, if I’m anything by a clinical name, I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” He quotes Vedanta: “Marriage partners are to serve each other . . . . How wonderful, how sane, how beautifully difficult, and therefore true. The joy of responsibility for the first time in my life.” Eventually—to the ire of Buddy’s guests—word comes that Seymour and Muriel have eloped; and it is suddenly clear that the quoted diary passage was meant to make us realize that it would be inappropriate for such a brilliant, self-searching paragon as Seymour to wed Muriel in the company of these vulgarians.
“Seymour—An Introduction” (i959), which was reprinted together with “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters” in 1963, rehearses yet again the high points of the Glass family saga, and provides us with a few new facts on Seymour. We learn, for instance, that Seymour was five ten-and-a-half and that he loved sports and games; we learn what a magnificent Oriental-type poet he was, one of the “three or four very nearly non-expendable poets” America has produced (no samples); and we get pages and pages of description of Seymour’s eyes and nose and mouth and skin. The ultimate purpose of all this is to communicate some notion, in that elliptical Glass manner, of why Seymour “was the only person I’ve ever habitually consorted with, banged around with, who more frequently than not tallied with the classical conception, as I saw it, of a mukta, a ringding enlightened man, a God-knower.” (That’s Buddy talking.) The piece does not take the form of a short story because “his character lends itself to no legitimate sort of narrative compactness that I know of.” And so what Salinger/Buddy gives us instead is an extremely eccentric series of wordy, highly self-conscious periodic sentences and transitional-sounding paragraphs—which, though they run on and on for nearly a hundred and fifty pages, manage to say very, very little about Seymour, or, for that matter, about anything else. (One of the more peculiar things about this story is that Buddy intimates that he wrote “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” and tells us the story was not “true,” but was rather an imaginative reconstruction of the events of Seymour’s last day based upon the available facts.)
Salinger’s last published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924” (1965), is even more bizarre—indeed, virtually unreadable. It takes the form of a letter that Seymour writes home from summer camp at age seven; but no seven-year-old in the history of the world ever wrote anything remotely like this. The letter is thoughtful, introspective, and twenty thousand words long, its ornate vocabulary and elaborate rolling sentences suggestive (despite occasional awkwardnesses) of William F. Buckley at his most Buckleyesque. A large portion of the letter is devoted to Seymour’s summer reading list, which consists of dozens of high-toned and esoteric (and both Western and Eastern) volumes of literature, theology, history, science, and philosophy—far more books than twenty literate adults would be likely to read in one summer. Is this Salinger’s ideal child? (One recalls a line from a letter—quoted by Hamilton—that Salinger wrote his friend, Judge Learned Hand, upon the birth in 1956 of Salinger’s daughter: by summer, he boasts, the baby will be able to explain some of the more obscure aspects of Vedanta to both of them.) Or is the story a wish-fulfillment fantasy—a chance for J. D. Salinger to be seven years old again, with nearly all the wit and articulateness of his grown-up self?
Throughout all of these Glass family tales, the consistent presence—whether as a living person or as an honored ghost—is that of Seymour, the child-man (and, finally, in “Hapworth,” the man-child); he hovers over the stories the way that giant fetus hovers in the heavens near the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the inescapable personification of all the qualities that Salinger held, and perhaps still holds, most dear. This obsessive deification of Seymour could never have happened, of course, had Salinger not been, to put it plainly, a child at heart—a writer who had difficulty establishing a memorable conflict that did not involve a childlike sensibility coming up against the “real world,” who rarely, if ever, created a compelling character that did not end up with a nervous breakdown as a result of such a conflict, and whose imagination seems to have been constitutionally incapable of taking such a character past the breakdown and into a stable adult life, or some reasonable approximation thereof.
Like many other Beat and hippie-era American children in search of pure and sweet and simple keys to the cosmos, Salinger was, it is clear, drawn all too easily into the black hole of Oriental mysticism, where Western systems of aesthetic valuation have no place and where a Seymour Glass—child prodigy, Oriental poet, spiritual Übermensch, and tragiheroic suicide—could evolve post-haste into an all but godlike symbol, the typical Salinger protagonist taken to its illogical extreme. So fascinated did Salinger become with the idea of Seymour that he lost all interest in plot, pace, characterization, conflict, and other such irrelevancies; far from being recognizable works of contemporary American fiction directed at a literary audience, his last two published prose pieces are, rather, letters to himself—gospels, as it were, about the Glass family, that private pantheon of eternally puerile Olympians.
To be sure, generations of celebrated American writers have been nearly as devoted as Salinger to the theme of innocence and experience, to the exploration of characters who are extraordinarily pure in soul or who refuse to accept adulthood or whose characteristically American guilelessness is contrasted tellingly and tragically with the sophistication and corruption of Europe. One thinks—to select only a few representative names—of Melville’s Billy Budd, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, James’s Daisy Miller. (The writer as a child of sorts has also, in this century at least, become a peculiar American institution: one thinks of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Mailer.) Leslie Fiedler wrote an entire book, Love and Death in the American Novel, demonstrating that the protagonists of American fiction since the time of Cooper had, to an extent unprecedented in Western literature, been notable for their aversion to adult relationships and responsibilities. But the writers—at least the greatest writers—of the works in question did not themselves endorse their characters’ childish aversions; they did not see those characters’ immature behavior as marks of superiority.
And that is where J. D. Salinger is different. For, despite its many virtues, its frequent charm and felicity of style, the bulk of Salinger’s fiction is seriously weakened by the fact that he is congenitally less interested in getting to the bottom of his characters’ emotionally retarded behavior than he is in celebrating it; less interested in creating a credible fictional universe than in sequestering himself within a private, privileged nursery with his child-heroes and childish heroes, a place from which he can look down upon those numberless masses who are not only less sensitive and intelligent, but less beautiful, sophisticated, and wealthy, than his protagonists. (And who, incidentally, unlike most of his central characters, neither have a connection to show business nor look down upon it as fervently as Salinger thinks they should.) For all his supposed spiritual enlightenment, then, Salinger manifestly remained, throughout his public writing career, as snobbish as he had been at military school and college. It is dismaying, but should not be surprising, that so contemptuous a man, however considerable his talent, was unable to produce a more consequential body of work than that which he has bequeathed us. Nor, alas—given the current literary climate, in which cultish devotions and sentimental attachments often count as strongly as sensible critical evaluation in the making of a literary reputation—is it surprising that the immense esteem in which Salinger is held by literate Americans should continue to stand in such remarkable disproportion to the actual level of his literary achievement.
- J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life, by Ian Hamilton; Random House, $17.95. [Editor’s note: Originally scheduled for August publication, J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life has now been postponed. According to Publishers Weekly July 11, 1986, “J.D. Salinger’s lawyers have questioned biographer Ian Hamilton’s right to use certain quoted material in the book. . . and have delayed the August publication . . . .” At this writing, no new publication date has been announced. ]
- A total of twenty-one Salinger stories, published in the “slicks” between 1940 and 1948, have never been allowed by Salinger to appear in book form. Almost all of these stories are contrived productions of little or no literary interest.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 1, on page 34
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