J.D. Salinger Revisited
by Gail Jarvis
by Gail Jarvis
Recently, in the process of moving, I came across some old books that had been tucked away long ago and forgotten. The subjects of these books range from economics to religion; quite an eclectic collection. But there are also works of fiction including stories by one of my favorite authors, J.D. Salinger.
Re-reading Salinger after all the intervening decades has been quite an eye-opener. My reaction to his stories was quite different from my initial impression when I first read them. I was also struck by the marked contrast between the1950s, in which his stories were set, and the current generation.
Salinger's short stories began to be published in national magazines shortly after the end of World War II.
This was several years before "The American Dream" was eviscerated by Washington's onslaught of ill-considered social engineering programs. Consequently, Salinger's fictional characters inhabited a nation quite different from today's. His characters also enjoyed privileges that many in their own generation didn't, being members of the "fashionable upper middle class"; primarily Manhattan types commonly portrayed in The New Yorker stories of the time. In that generation, authors who wrote these kinds of stories were eagerly promoted by the New York City publishing industry. In addition to Salinger there were writers like John Updike and John Cheever, and, on a lesser level, author and filmmaker, Woody Allen.
J.D. Salinger's major claim to fame rests on his collection of short stories about the maverick Glass family and his only novel, The Catcher in the Rye. These works concern fictional characters who are alienated from a society composed of what they call "phonies." In addressing this theme, Salinger foreshadowed the coming "counterculture." Holden Caulfield, teen-aged anti-hero of The Catcher in the Rye, is expelled from a fancy prep school and wanders aimlessly around New York City, cursing society and referring to its inhabitants as "morons." When the book was published in 1951, Catcher became a cult classic for the emerging postwar generation and it remained at the top of the heap until 1957 when it was replaced by Jack Kerouac's On The Road.
Kerouac's "Beat Generation" picked up where Salinger left off and took the counterculture to a place where Salinger would have never ventured. Salinger personally despised the Beats, especially what he considered to be their degenerate lifestyle. Although Salinger's characters had "issues" with society, they lived their lives according to the proprieties of the predominant culture. If Salinger disapproved of the Beat Generation, he must have been appalled by its successor, the "Hippies," especially their "if it feels good do it" philosophy.
Although I appreciated the craftsmanship that went into the writing of The Catcher in the Rye, especially the authentic and consistent first person narrative, not an easy literary feat, it was not a book that I wanted to save and re-read. However, I was taken with the Glass family short stories, some stretching to novella length and later collected into three books.
The Glass family was composed of seven extraordinary children whose superior intelligence was showcased on a weekly radio program appropriately called: "It's a Wise Child." These seven siblings were a far cry from the seven von Trapp children whose high spirits liven up The Sound of Music. Like many clever people who don't have to worry about coming up with the rent money or putting groceries on the table, the Glass siblings suffer instead from a generalized angst because society doesn't measure up to their expectations.
Salinger's characters were disillusioned with what they perceived as the phoniness of the 1950s. Even today many people stereotypically regard the 1950s as a repressive time of stifling conformity. But in many ways it can be viewed as an era of relative calm sandwiched between the radical liberalism of the 1930s and the social upheaval of the 1960s. It was a time of two parent families. The husband, "the man in the gray flannel suit," worked in an office with similarly attired coworkers. The wife stayed home, acting as homemaker and concentrating on raising children. And most families usually belonged to a local church or synagogue that they attended regularly.
But this way of life was despised by the counterculture. They complained that the conformity of the 1950s inhibited the development of what was euphemistically called "alternative lifestyles."
In the first of the Glass family stories to appear in print, A Perfect Day for Bananafish (1948), Seymour Glass, a young veteran of World War II and seemingly on the verge of a mental breakdown, is vacationing with his wife in Florida. He feels that he is married to an insensitive, materialistic woman whom he calls "Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948." He is thoroughly frustrated with his life and his behavior becomes more and more bizarre until one afternoon he commits suicide.
In subsequent stories, describing events that occurred before his suicide, Seymour, the first-born son emerges as the major domo of the Glass family. He is portrayed as supremely intellectual, almost larger-than-life, and idolized by the other six children who live their lives according to his sage advise. Indeed Salinger portrays Seymour as so saint-like and all-knowing that his suicide becomes nearly impossible for the author to explain.
Other members of the Glass Family appear in other stories. The death of Walt, as a result of a freak accident, is recounted in Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut (1948). His twin brother, Waker, joins the priesthood. In Down at the Dinghy (1949) we meet Boo Boo (Beatrice), probably the most normal of the siblings. She is married with a small, and over-indulged, child.
The youngest family member, Franny, shows up in Franny (1955). She is an attractive, overly sensitive college coed who decries the phoniness of her literature professors, dismissing their poems as "syntaxy droppings." With her typical sarcasm Franny describes a male associate as wearing "his little button-down-collar shirt and striped tie," and her estrangement from society eventually puts her under the sway of a spiritual tract by an anonymous 19th century Russian mystic that encourages novices to "pray without ceasing."
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1955) is narrated by Buddy Glass, the second son who became the titular head of the family after Seymour's death. (In this story, Salinger uses what will become a common device in the remaining Glass family stories: the reading of letters and dairy entries to develop the character and special attributes of Seymour.) Buddy recounts his attendance at Seymour's on-again off-again wedding. At the last minute, Seymour backs out of the wedding but it is too late to cancel the ceremony. Seymour then has a change of heart and, after the angry guests have left the cancelled ceremony, convinces his fiancé to elope.
In Zooey (1957) we are introduced to Zooey (Zachary), a struggling actor in the fledgling medium of television. While he is re-reading a letter from Buddy, Zooey is interrupted by his mother, who prevails upon him to revive Franny, his despondent younger sister, who now alternates her time between sleeping and repeating her prayers. Zooey is finally able to bring her out of the doldrums by combining Eastern wisdom, learned from Seymour and Buddy, with his own special theatrics.
At the peak of his popularity, J.D. Salinger, seeking respite from his excessive notoriety, began to withdraw from the public eye. Eventually he left New York and relocated to a remote area of New Hampshire where he has pursued a reclusive life, refusing to grant interviews and avoiding contact with the public. His increasingly introverted behavior may have resulted from his heightened interest in Eastern religions, especially Vedanta, which lead him to hire a personal guru, Swami Nikhilananda, to aid him in his spiritual quest. But years of seclusion and introspection apparently hindered Salinger's ability to write the clever short stories that made him so popular.
In fact, it would take quite a stretch to even apply the designation "story" in connection with the final two installments in the Glass family saga which contain no plot or story line but are simply glowing tributes to Seymour. I suspect that Salinger was apprehensive about how his readers would accept these two works because in the first, Seymour — an Introduction (1959), he tries to placate his audience: "I look on my old fair-weather friend the general reader as my last deeply contemporary confidant"; "I privately say to you, old friend, please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((( ))))." He then proceeds to indulge himself in an over-long, disjointed praise of Seymour.
Salinger published his last story in 1965: Hapworth 16, 1924. It is a protracted and often tedious letter from Seymour to his family written from a summer camp he was attending with his younger brother Buddy; the boys' ages being seven and five. This almost unreadable work was submitted to The New Yorker and, incredibly, the magazine printed it. In one section that goes on for almost a dozen pages, Seymour lists the books he wants sent to camp for the boys' reading pleasure. The erudite comments following each request indicate that many of the books have been previously read by both boys. The list of books is too long to quote here, but it includes: the complete works of Tolstoy; the entire works of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and the Brontė sisters. Also requested were French language versions of works by Marcel Proust, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert and Honore de Balzac as well as Montaigne's essays, histories of ancient civilizations, the lives of the Medicis, and works on Eastern religions. Although the two young boys might be described as savants, their intellectual attainments as implied by their literary tastes, are simply not creditable.
With Seymour — an Introduction and Hapworth 16, 1924 Salinger moved from story telling to proselytizing. In doing so, he began to lose his readership. But, although Salinger never published again, his earlier stories sustain his reputation as a writer. They are an excellent learning tool for anyone wanting to study the craft of fiction.
I am still appreciative of Salinger's literary skills but I confess that re-reading his stories after all these years did raise a question: "Who were the real phonies' in the 1950s? — society or Salinger's fictional characters?" I would pin the label "phony" on Salinger's characters who too often come across as navel-gazing narcissists, grieving because society doesn't measure up to their esoteric expectations. And personally, I prefer the 1950s to our current society, a society that seems to be the epitome of phoniness.
February 21, 2006
Gail Jarvis [send him mail] is a free-lance writer.
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