Salinger, J(erome) D(avid) 1919–
An American novelist and short story writer, Salinger is best known for The Catcher in the Rye, and Franny and Zooey. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[Recent] neglect [of Salinger] is unfortunate for at least two reasons. First of all, and perhaps less important, Salinger has, in a measure, revived the dormant art of dialect in American fiction. His ear has detected innumerable idiomatic expressions that were simply unrecorded before…. But this achievement is somewhat self-evident. I prefer to justify Salinger on a second basis: namely, the coherence of his particular vision of the world. This is essentially the vision of his heroes—of Holden Caulfield, Seymour Glass, Teddy, Franny, Daumier Smith, and the rest. The important question in Salinger is why these intelligent, highly sensitive, affectionate beings fight curious, gruelling battles, leaderless and causeless, in a world they never made….
William Wiegand, "J. D. Salinger's Seventy-eight Bananas," in Chicago Review, Winter, 1958, pp. 3-19.
[One] may see the fondness for Salinger as a literary retreat from the largeness and rhetoric paraded in current revivals of giants like Melville, James, and Faulkner; for Salinger's protagonists are mostly metropolitan introverts with whom the young reader can more easily identify himself than with, say, the aspiring Captain Ahab, Isabel Archer, or Thomas Sutpen. (p. 2)
The exciting resemblances [of The Catcher in the Rye] to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been justly noted by a number of critics—the comic irony, the colloquial language, the picaresque structure, and the theme of anti-phoniness—and it is not inconceivable that some day Holden Caulfield may be as well known an American boy as Huck Finn. For a reader goes through much the same pattern of relishing both boys: first it is the release provided by their rebellion against society, then the inspiration of their honesty against sham, and then the sympathetic awareness of their melancholy roles. (pp. 28-9)
Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, in their The Fiction of J. D. Salinger, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958.
Salinger was the spokesman of the Ivy League Rebellion during the early Fifties. He had come to express, apparently, the values and aspirations of college youth in a way that nobody since Scott Fitzgerald … had done as well. He is interesting to read for this reason, and because he is a leading light in the New Yorker school of writing. (He is probably their ultimate artist.) And besides, Salinger's talent is interesting for its own sake.
Maxwell Geismar, "J. D. Salinger: The Wise Child and the New Yorker School of Fiction" (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1958 by Maxwell Geismar), in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity, Hill & Wang, 1958, pp. 195-209.
There are many writers, like J. D. Salinger, who lack strength, but who are competent and interesting. He identifies himself too fussily with the spiritual aches and pains of his characters; in some of his recent stories, notably "Zooey" and "Seymour: An Introduction," he has overextended his line, thinned it out, in an effort to get the fullest possible significance out of his material. Salinger's work is a perfect example of the lean reserves of the American writer who is reduced to "personality," even to the "mystery of personality," instead of the drama of our social existence. It is the waveriness, the effort at control, that trouble me in Salinger; the professional hand is there, the ability to create an imaginative world, plus almost too much awareness of what he can and can't do. Only, it is thin, and peculiarly heartbreaking at times; Salinger identifies the effort he puts out with the vaguely spiritual "quest" on which his characters are engaged, which reminds me of Kierkegaard's saying that we have become "pitiful," like the lacemakers whose work is so flimsy. The delicate balances in Salinger's work, the anxious striving, inevitably result in beautiful work that is rather too obviously touching, and put together on a frame presented to it by the New Yorker.
Alfred Kazin, "The Alone Generation," in Harper's, October, 1959, pp. 127-31.
[It] was only in 1951 that the apotheosis of The Catcher in the Rye as a Book-of-the-Month selection took place. Since then American youth has learned to speak of Salinger and Dostoyevsky in the same breath, and to read them in the same measure, as a recent survey in The Nation claimed. This is all very well…. But we do Salinger ill-service to base his reputation on anything less enduring than his art.
Salinger, of course, has written some of the best fiction of our time. His voice is genuine, new, and startlingly uneven. In his work we find no showy or covert gesture in the direction of Symbolism or Naturalism, Gothic design or Freudian chiaroscuro…. [The] work of Salinger proves itself to be seriously engaged by a current and a traditional aspect of reality in America.
The traditional aspect wears no elaborate disguise. It is the new look of the American Dream, specifically dramatized by the encounter between a vision of innocence and the reality of guilt, between the forms love and power have tended to assume in America. The natural locus of that conflict in the work of Salinger is childhood and adolescence. In them the counter-play of hope and despair, truth and mendacity, participation and withdrawal, commands a full range of comic, that is ambivalent, reference: it is the old story of the self against the world in outlines blurred by a mass society…. The retreat to childhood is not simply an escape; it is also a criticism, an affirmation of values which, for better or worse, we still cherish; and the need for adolescent disaffiliation, the refusal of initiation, expresses the need to reconceive American reality.
Yet it is hard for some critics to recognize that no act of denial in Salinger's work is without some dramatic and social correlative, which is more than we can generally say of equally serious novelists writing today…. Social realities are no doubt repressed in the work of Salinger—note how gingerly he handles his Jews—and this puts a limit on the total significance we can accord to it. Yet it is by what an author manages to dramatize that we must finally judge him.
The dramatic conflict which so many of Salinger's stories present obviously does not lend itself to sociological classification. It is more loving and particular, and it partakes of situations that have been traditionally available to literature. The conflict, however, suggests a certain polarity between what might be called, with all due exaggeration, the Assertive Vulgarian and the Responsive Outsider. Both types recur with sufficient frequency to warrant the distinction, and their interplay defines much that is most central to Salinger's fiction. The Vulgarian, who carries the burden of squalor, stands for all that is crude, venal, self-absorbed, and sequacious in our culture. He has no access to knowledge or feeling or beauty, which makes him all the more invulnerable…. The Outsider, on the other hand, carries the burden of love. The burden makes of him sometimes a victim, and sometimes a scapegoat saint…. Often there is something in the situation of the Outsider to isolate him, to set him off, however slightly, from the rest of mankind. He might be a child or an adolescent, might wear glasses or appear disfigured, might be Jewish, though seldom is he as crippled or exotic as the characters of Capote and McCullers often are. His ultimate defense, as Rilke, to whom Salinger refers, put it, is defenselessness….
The response of these outsiders and victims to the dull or angry world about them is not simply one of withdrawal: it often takes the form of a strange, quixotic gesture. The gesture, one feels sure, is the bright metaphor of Salinger's sensibility, the center from which meaning drives [sic], and ultimately the reach of his commitment to past innocence and current guilt. It is a gesture at once of pure expression and of expectation, of protest and prayer, of aesthetic form and spiritual content—as Blackmur would say, it is behavior that sings. There is often something prodigal and spontaneous about it, something humorous or whimsical, something that disrupts our habits of gray acquiescence and revives our faith in the willingness of the human spirit. But above all, it gives of itself as only a religious gesture can…. The quest of American adolescents … has always been for an idea of truth. It is this very idea of truth that the quixotic gesture is constantly seeking to embody. The embodiment is style in action: the twist and tang, the stammering and improvisations, the glint and humor of Salinger's language…. But gesture is language too. The quixotic gesture, the central dramatic metaphor, to which Salinger has committed himself defines the limits of his language and the forms his fiction takes. When the gesture aspires to pure religious expression—this is one pole—language reaches into silence….
Between the poles of silence and sentiment, language reels and totters. Salinger's cumbersome experiments with character, tense, and point of view in his most recent stories betray his efforts to discover a language which can reconcile the worldless impulse of love to the discursive irony of squalor. In the past, while the quixotic gesture could still convey the force of his vision, reconciliation took the shape of the short story, that genre so richly exploited by the single lyric impulse seeking embodiment in dramatic form. But the quixotic motif seems no longer commensurate with the complex spiritual states by which Salinger has lately been possessed…. [The] risks Salinger has taken with his art are contained in the risks he must take with his religious view of things.
Ihab Hassan, in his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (© 1961 by Princeton University Press; Princeton Paperback, 1971; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 259-64.
In one form or another, as a fellow novelist [Norman Mailer] commented unlovingly, Salinger is "everybody's favorite."… But above all is he a favorite with that audience of students, student intellectuals, instructors, and generally literary, sensitive and sophisticated young people who respond to him with a consciousness that he speaks for them and virtually to them, in a language that is peculiarly "honest" and their own, with a vision of things that captures their most secret judgments of the world….
A fundamental reason for Salinger's appeal (like that of Hemingway in the short stories that made him famous) is that he has exciting professional mastery of a peculiarly charged and dramatic medium—the American short story. At a time when so much American fiction has been discursive in tone, careless in language, lacking in edge and force—when else would it have been possible for crudities like the beat novelists to be taken seriously?—Salinger has done an honest and stimulating professional job in a medium which, when it is expertly handled, projects emotion like a cry from the stage and in form can be as intense as a lyric poem…. What makes Salinger's stories particularly exciting is his intense, his almost compulsive, need to fill in each inch of his canvas, each moment of his scene.
Salinger's vast public, I am convinced, is based not merely on the number of young people who recognize their emotional problems in his fiction and their frustrated rebellions in the sophisticated language he manipulates so skillfully. It is based perhaps even more on all those who have been released by our society to think of themselves as endlessly "sensitive," spiritually alone, gifted—and whose suffering lies in the narrowing of their consciousness to themselves, in the withdrawal of their curiosity from a society which they think they understand all too well, in the drying-up of their hope, their trust, and their wonder at the great world itself. The worst of American sophistication today is that it is so bored, so full of categorical aversion to things that writers should never take for granted and never close their eyes to.
The fact that Salinger's work is particularly directed against the "well-fed sunburned" people at the summer theater, at the "section men" in colleges parroting the latest fashionable literary formulas, at the "three-martini" men—this, indeed, is what is wrong. He hates them. They are no longer people but symbols, like the "Fat Lady." No wonder that Zooey tells his sister: Love them, love them all, love them anyway! But the problem is not one of spiritual pride or of guilt: it is that in the tearing of the "sympathetic bond" it is not love that goes, but the deepest possibilities of literary art.
Alfred Kazin, "J. D. Salinger: 'Everybody's Favorite'" (1961), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 230-40.
[Salinger's] The Catcher in the Rye proves upon close scrutiny to be the story of an ex-would-be-catcher-in-the-rye. It might more appropriately be titled "A Portrait of the Artist as a Very Nervous Young Man." That the novel is about a young man with an artistic bent is not surprising. Artists are likely—whatever subject they choose—to end up contemplating the problems of being an artist. The tracing of Holden's intellectual development, although the least emphasized part of the book, is the most successful; for, while even the good artist—without other training—has no special insight into the problems of physical or emotional growth, the one thing he may know is the problems of becoming an artist. (p. 124)
The Catcher in the Rye is the work of a conservative who is not interested in overthrowing existing institutions but in providing a decent world for sensitive youths who are not strong-willed enough to flaunt tradition. The novel is the tale of such a boy's coming reluctantly and painfully to terms with his society. "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters" implies … that the family should provide the individual with an uncritically affectionate response. It would not be at all surprising if, as Newsweek reports, Salinger is a registered Republican. He would favor a party that avowedly supported stability. Such satirical protests as he makes are against those who threaten the tranquility and order of the world in order to "get somewhere." It is especially noticeable that none of Salinger's central characters ever have financial problems that cause them discomfort. (pp. 158-59)
Salinger has been fascinated—as James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" brilliantly suggests the timorous often are—with the vision of the man who allows himself to be destroyed rather than to compromise with phoniness. Many such figures might be imagined; but as Salinger's reaction to Hemingway and the Beatniks shows, he resents those who actually thumb their noses at bourgeois proprieties. Nor can he accept dynamic world-shakers who are too strongly motivated by materialist goals. To satisfy him, the holdout must share Holden Caulfield's sense of universal compassion. He must, in short, be a man with an extraordinary capacity to "get somewhere" who then chooses not to use it. Since life provides few such paragons, Seymour [Glass] is created. (p. 159)
Undoubtedly part of the reason why Salinger is attracted to "cuteness" is that it is a characteristic of those who are intellectually precocious without having developed sexually. The "sexlessness" of Salinger's world has often been noticed. Although prostitutes, adulterers, and such creatures occasionally darken his pages, they are consistently denounced. His attitude toward sex appears the product, however, not so much of a fear or hatred of sex in itself, as of a detestation of sexual promiscuity. This hatred extends, furthermore, to any other form of promiscuous behavior…. Salinger's heroes' struggles to hold on to their Victorian ideals account, I think, for their often preferring the company of female children to that of women of their own age. I do not think that Salinger intends any hint in their behavior of the kind of lustful cravings that prompt Humbert Humbert's interest in Lolita. Rather, to stay "nice," they must seek out those still too young to feel sexual stirrings, whom they can dream of protecting from becoming contaminated. When older people, however, mingle too long with pre-pubescent children, they are likely to become "cute" themselves…. We cannot criticize an artist, however, for working on his own terms. If Salinger wishes to devote himself to the search for the seer, that is his business. (pp. 167-69)
Warren French, in his J. D. Salinger, Twayne, 1963.
In some very important respects, [The Catcher in the Rye] is the American novel of its generation, for in Holden Caulfield Salinger has created a myth-figure with which millions of young and youngish Americans have identified themselves.
As an accomplishment, its brilliance cannot be questioned. In Holden's monologue, for that is what the novel is, Salinger has created the dialect of a generation; it is a triumph of a special kind of vernacular writing, which has its roots partly in Ring Lardner's stories, partly in high-school and hipster slang….
Like Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye is a picaresque novel about initiation into manhood. But though Twain's—or Huck's—attitude towards initiation is ambiguous, at least Huck intervenes in the activities of the adult world and makes deliberate moral choices, for all that at the end he seems to repudiate the adult world. In The Catcher, however, the attitude towards initiation is not even ambiguous. It is rejected, for the novel ends with Holden's fugue into illness, though I suppose it could be maintained that Holden's actual writing of his book, under, one assumes, the influence of psychoanalytical treatment, represents a kind of facing of reality. So, though The Catcher is extremely funny, it is also extremely sad….
As a self-portrait of a neurotic adolescent who flunks out of his prep school, runs off to New York where he spends a lost weekend in hotels, nightclubs, theatres and museums, fails to sleep with a prostitute and is beaten up by her ponce, wanders round Central Park, meets his kid sister and finds himself the objective of tentative homosexual advances from one of the few adults for whom he has any respect, The Catcher in the Rye can scarcely be faulted. But it doesn't seem possible to take it simply as this. Yet if it is more, we need to know more. We need to know more, for example, about Holden's parents, who are scarcely in the book at all. What are fascinating, of course, are Holden's moral judgments. While his kid sister Phoebe's accusation that he dislikes everything is not in fact true, it is true that the world in which he lives is populated to an overwhelming degree by phoney creeps.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 309-11.
No one has denied that Salinger has talent, but no one has granted that it is major. He is 'one of today's best little writers'. Undergraduates, or at least freshmen, like The Catcher in the Rye, but their teachers more often prefer Nine Stories. 'For Esmé, with Love and Squalor' is taken as the high point of his achievement. The late stories are the occasion for virtuous variants on 'I'm afraid I just couldn't get through it'….
The criticism of Salinger that seems to lie behind [the] assurance that 'he just isn't that important' is that he writes about and for and out of adolescence. And it is clearly true that Salinger has written more about adolescents and children than he has about adults, and that his writing about them has a specially luminous quality. Those portraits are what one remembers after first reading, because around them, as subjects, the gaiety, the wit, the spontaneity of feeling, the inventiveness of detail, the freshness of taste, all concentrate most….
In The Catcher in the Rye Salinger established himself as a great realist; and it is perhaps because we have forgotten what realism is that we have failed to recognise his achievement…. It is just this realism which makes the book so much more distinguished than Nine Stories. The wider, soberer, more impersonal ambition—to record, and render, the whole city; and the severer discipline—the renunciation of all descriptive adjectives and prophetic epiphanies; these purge away the too-insistent lyricism and portentousness of the early work. All the more personal concerns are sacrificed to authenticity, to probability turned into an artistic virtue….
There has been a comparable development, from realism to super-realism, in every aspect of Salinger's art. In the evocation of places, for instance, [Franny and Zooey] describes typical New York settings with a dazzling economy of detail….
Martin Green, in his Reappraisals: Some Commonsense Readings in American Literature (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1965, 1963, by Martin Green), Norton, 1965, pp. 197-210.
The Catcher in the Rye is a deceptively simple, enormously rich book whose sources of appeal run in deep and complexly varied veins. The very young are likely to identify with Holden and to see the adult world in which he sojourns as completely phony and worthless; the book thus becomes a handbook for rebels and a guide to identification of squares. The older generation is likely to identify with some part of the society that is satirized, and to see Holden as a bright but sick boy whose psyche needs adjustment before he can, as he will, find his niche and settle down. Holden as ideal rebel or Holden as neurotic misfit—the evidence for either interpretation lies loosely on the surface of the novel. Beneath the surface lies the evidence for a more complicated as well as more convincing Holden than some of his admirers are willing to recognize. (p. 8)
Holden's quest … may be stated in a number of ways. In one sense, his quest is a quest to preserve an innocence that is in peril of vanishing—the innocence of childhood, the spotless innocence of a self horrified at contamination in the ordinary and inevitable involvements of life. In another sense, the quest is a quest for an ideal but un-human love that will meet all demands but make none; a relationship so sensitively attuned that all means of communication, however subtle, will remain alertly open, and all the messages, in whatever language, will get through. Perhaps in its profoundest sense Holden's quest is a quest for identity, a search for the self—he does, for example, go through a number of guises, such as Rudolf Schmidt when he talks with his classmate's mother or Jim Steele when he is visited by the prostitute Sunny. But he remains, however he might wish to the contrary, Holden Caulfield, and the self he is led to discover is Holden's and none other. And that self he discovers is a human self and an involved self that cannot, finally, break what Hawthorne once called the "magnetic chain of humanity"; he cannot deny the love within him when he begins to miss all the people, "bastards" included, he has told about. (pp. 12-13)
On one level, The Catcher in the Rye may be read as a story of death and rebirth. It is symbolically relevant that the time of year is deep winter: it is the time of Christmas, a season of expiration and parturition. Holden is fated, at the critical age of sixteen years, to fall from innocence, to experience the death of the old self and to arise a new Holden to confront the world afresh. (p. 15)
Salinger is allied, in a basic way, to the joyful mysticism of Whitman, but he responds, too, to the mystical anguish of Emily Dickinson as well as to the macabre humor of Mark Twain. He no doubt finds much for himself in the idiom and prose rhythms of Ring Lardner, and he is attracted by F. Scott Fitzgerald's poetic style as well as his explorations of idealism and reality. From his own era, we might guess that his sympathies would be attracted to Wright Morris' probing of time, and John Updike's examination of the relation of spirit and matter. But the basic patterns of his novels, the patterns of withdrawal and return, of the search for the ideal and the discovery of self, of the fall from innocence and the acknowledgment of complicity, are also the basic patterns of Hawthorne and Melville, though these are two writers that he does not mention. He does refer to Eliot, but never with enthusiasm; and though he did not entirely escape the wasteland vision, it is clear that his tastes (and his themes) are more closely akin to affirmative poetry of the mystical tradition. (pp. 44-5)
James E. Miller, Jr., in his J. D. Salinger ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 51), University of Minnesota Press, © 1965 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).
In reaction to its long period of over-repute, J. D. Salinger's first and only novel, The Catcher in the Rye …, has undergone in recent years a steady if overinsistent devaluation. The more it becomes academically respectable, the more it becomes fair game for those critics who are sworn to expose every manifestation of what seems to them a chronic disparity between appearance and reality. It is critical child's play to find fault with Salinger's novel. Anyone can see that the prose is mannered (which is the pejorative word for stylized); no one actually talks like its first-person hero Holden Caulfield. Moreover, we are told that Holden as poor little rich boy is too precocious and specialized an adolescent for his plight to have larger-than-prep-school significance. The novel is sentimental, it loads the deck for Holden and against the adult world; the small but corrupt group that Holden encounters is not a representative enough sampling to permit Salinger his inclusive judgments of the species….
The Catcher in the Rye will endure. It will endure mainly because it has life and secondly because it is an original work full of insights into at least the particular truth of Holden's existence. Given the limited terms of its vision, Salinger's small book is almost perfectly achieved. It is, if such a distinction is meaningful, an important minor novel.
Jonathan Baumbach, "The Saint as a Young Man: The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger," in his The Landscape in Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, New York University Press, 1965, pp. 55-67.
J. D. Salinger is one of the most controversial writers of [recent] years. Seldom has a writer's work been greeted with such extremes of praise and condemnation. Critics oriented toward the socio-economic have said that his heroes are self-righteous and self-centered misfits who reveal the immaturity and preciosity of Salinger's vision. At the opposite pole are critics—more concerned with language analysis and with psychology—who have said that Salinger's insight into contemporary man is one of the most brilliant yet achieved. On at least one score, however, there is widespread agreement: critics from both camps have remarked Salinger's ability to capture the idiom of contemporary speech. Talking is extremely important to Salinger, and he has used his ear for human speech to shape a theme and a technique that is central to his art…. Verbal ability, for Salinger, is basically a performance, a pouring out from an inner and excessive richness of spirit that seeks shape in words. It is part ecstasy (especially for Seymour Glass), part torment (especially for Buddy Glass), and always part irony; for Salinger holds that the truest expression of our deepest self is a bit insane, a bit freakish…. The performance is, in short, a balancing act, a hoax of spiritual ecstacy, a trick of man's fated commitment to the dust of flesh, and thus a trick of truth.
Max Westbrook, in The Modern American Novel: Essays in Criticism, edited by Max Westbrook (© 1966 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Random House, 1966, pp. 209-11.
The Catcher in the Rye in one of the key-books of the post-war period. It was the culminating work of a series of stories, most of which carried the theme of a sick mind's redemption through the innocence of a child. Salinger's later works—Franny, Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters—have disappointed his admirers, though they are the books they should have expected. It required boldness to present an attempt at solving the world's problems through a positive creed of love, though Salinger's genuine crime is to close in, depicting a family of the elect (the Glass family) who are doing two things—ritually washing away the world's guilt, practising a synthetic religion that has elements of Christianity and Zen Buddhism in it. Holden at least confronts the dirty mass of sinning humanity, though it drives him to a mental home; the Glass family confronts itself. A latent sentimentality in The Catcher in the Rye comes out into the open in the later stories, pawing with sticky fingers. But at least Salinger has refused to repeat himself; a lesser author could have used Holden Caulfield for ever.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 151-52.
If Salinger is everybody's favorite, as Norman Mailer has claimed, he is so for reasons other than craft or ingeniousness—although let us not minimize the achievement of our "most gifted minor writer"; he has written the finest short stories of contemporary American literature. Salinger touches upon our collective desire and need to salvage whatever idealism we can in a country increasingly dominated by authority.
Theodore L. Gross, "J. D. Salinger: Suicide and Survival in the Modern World," in South Atlantic Quarterly (© 1969 by the Duke University Press), Autumn, 1969, pp. 454-62.
[Salinger] rewrites, throws away, starts over again, but in the end his stories are as tight as violin strings. He is perhaps the greatest word-weaver in American literary history. His stories can be read, aside from any meaning they may or may not contain, as sheer poetry—which is perhaps what they are.
Bernard Dekle, "J. D. Salinger: Voice of Frustrated Youth," in his Profiles of Modern American Authors, Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, pp. 167-72.
Did this raise a question for you?