J. D. Salinger Essay - Salinger, J(erome) D(avid) (Vol. 8)

Salinger, J(erome) D(avid) (Vol. 8)

Salinger, J(erome) D(avid) 1919–

An American novelist and short story writer, Salinger is a master of contemporary dialect and idiomatic expression. A recluse of sorts, Salinger is best known for The Catcher in the Rye, which earned him a cult-like following among the youth of the fifties and sixties, and which, according to Stanley Hyman, illustrates Salinger's "marvelous sensitivity to the young, to the language, to the fraudulence of contemporary America." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

"Hapworth 16, 1924" is, for me at least, Salinger's finest work and a perfection among great short novels by 20th century Americans—as strong as "The Old Man and the Sea," "The Great Gatsby," the best of Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Faulkner. The story's idols, among others, are Cervantes and the Dostoievsky who created the 14-year-old boy genius Kolya in "The Brothers Karamazov." All this is only to say I like "Hapworth" with an even greater admiration than I have for "The Catcher in the Rye" and love it with great heart indeed.

"Hapworth's" hero is Seymour Glass, "who died, committed suicide, opted to discontinue living, back in 1948, when he was 31," as his brother Buddy tells us in a brief foreword. Seymour is also the pivot of a constellation of stories about the Glass family in which we forever wonder why Seymour killed himself. "Hapworth" tells why.

"Hapworth" stands alone, contains almost everything we need to know about the Glasses, and artistically is above compare with the lesser pieces…. I have very mixed feelings about "Franny and Zooey," "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," "Seymour, an Introduction," and "Nine Stories," but I find "Hapworth 16, 1924" a writer's ode to joy when he is in full control of his every resource.

Seymour! He's all three Karamazovs rolled into one, a Dmitry driven by sensuality, an Ivan by intellectual curiosity, an Alyosha eaten daily by the highest spiritual longings ("There is monumental work to be done in this appearance"; "… with maddening tears coursing down my unstable face … I do not in my heart hold out unlimited hope for the human tongue as we know it today"; "Also on the hearty, revitalizing side of the ledger, bear in mind, with good cheer and amusement, that we were quite firmly obliged, as well as often dubiously privileged, to bring our creative genius with us from our previous appearances"; "rely on God utterly"). And Seymour is only seven years old. Yes, seven.


You have to suspend disbelief on the same scale as if raising Atlantis from the seabottoms by sheer mind-power. Or you simply accept seven as the number in which three (the Trinity) and four (the elements, the seasons, and so on) blend in perfect knowledge and self-realization of the Mind-Body. Seymour is fast on his way to knowing Everything, even about his brain, his bones, his phallus; wherever he looks, in any field, including Chinese materia medica, or Proust (in the original), or Eastern religions, or Russian novelists, or the Bible ("the touching, splendid Holy Bible comes in very handy, freely preserving one's precious sanity on a rainy day, the incomparable Jesus Christ freely suggesting, as follows: 'Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect'"), or the obscure 19th century astronomer-mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton (researcher on light rays and first theorist of higher complex numbers, called quaternions), his eye lights up the subject with superhuman familiarity.

His all-knowingness is especially sharp on human nature. He also spends much time in the woods with his five-year-old brother Buddy, cooking up eatable weeds and plants with the fearlessness of Euell Gibbons. A poet with a considerable body of work behind him (with charming bravery he admits to being outwritten by Wordsworth and "the splendid William Blake"). Seymour also practices yoga and is a terrific tapdancer and gifted softshoe artist (his life, he claims, is an "unforgettable waltz")….

The theme of "Hapworth," as I see it, is the redeeming power of love and that power's eternal reappearance…. Seymour's insight into the strengths and failings of everyone is the story's main matter. He constantly forgives each person's vices and raises their virtues to heaven. Powerfully. That's it, almost. Except that someday Seymour will run dry, finding that God has denied him a teacher (Hamilton was apparently his teacher in the last century); he will "opt out" of his present appearance in favor of the next.

The story takes the form of a letter Seymour writes home from a bugle-blowing Maine boys camp (Hapworth)…. It's a superbolic letter to God, I'd say, a shining inventory, one of Holden Caulfield's telephone calls to an author, his "terrific friend."

Seymour writes—actively fighting self-deceit in every form—from an infirmary bed. He's wounded his leg on a piece of iron sticking out of a moving wagon wheel and can't walk…. In heaven, like a hart at the water brooks he lies sublimely abed with his vision of love, made lame by the sheer weight of the "magnificent," "elusive," "comical," "amusing," "brave," "excitable," "heartrending," "unspeakably moving" passion and rottenness of the people who burst his heart, that marvelous lump of radium and spiritual light which Salinger has given us forever. (p. 27)

Donald Newlove, The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), August 22, 1974.

The response of college students to the work of J. D. Salinger indicates that perhaps he, more than anyone else, has not turned his back on the times but, instead, has managed to put his finger on whatever struggle of significance is going on today between self and culture. The Catcher in the Rye and the recent stories in The New Yorker having to do with the Glass family surely take place in the immediate here and now. But what about the self, what about the hero? The question is of particular interest here, for in Salinger, more than in most of his contemporaries, the figure of the writer has lately come to be placed directly in the reader's line of vision, so that there is a connection, finally, between the attitudes of the narrator as, say, brother to Seymour Glass, and as a man who writes by profession.

And what of Salinger's heroes? Well, Holden Caulfield, we discover, winds up in an expensive sanitarium. And Seymour Glass commits suicide finally, but prior to that he is the apple of his brother's eye—and why? He has learned to live in this world—but how? By not living in it. By kissing the soles of little girls' feet and throwing rocks at the head of his sweetheart. He is a saint, clearly. But since madness is undesirable and sainthood, for most of us, out of the question, the problem of how to live in this world is by no means answered; unless the answer is that one cannot. The only advice we seem to get from Salinger is to be charming on the way to the loony bin. Of course, Salinger is under no obligation to supply advice of any sort to writers or readers—still, I happen to find myself growing more and more curious about this professional writer, Buddy Glass, and how he manages to coast through life in the arms of sanity.

There is in Salinger the suggestion that mysticism is a possible road to salvation; at least some of his characters respond well to an intensified, emotional religious belief. Now my own reading in Zen is minuscule, but as I understand it from Salinger, the deeper we go into this world, the further we can get away from it. If you contemplate a potato long enough, it stops being a potato in the usual sense; unfortunately, however, it is the usual sense that we have to deal with from day to day. For all his loving handling of the world's objects there seems to me, in Salinger's Glass family stories as in The Catcher, a spurning of life as it is lived in the immediate world—this place and time is viewed as unworthy of those few precious people who have been set down in it only to be maddened and destroyed. (pp. 125-27)

Philip Roth, in his Reading Myself and Others (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1961, 1963, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by Philip Roth), Farrar, Straus, 1975.

During the course of his adventures in The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield undergoes a startling transformation: from an existence in which his nature is dangerously divided, to a remarkably integrated state of being. (p. 432)

Although frequently referring to himself as a "madman," Holden does so without realizing the basis of the comparison: that his nature, which should be developing towards maturity, has stalled within an early state of childhood. A child, at birth, is able to perceive and to feel, but is not yet capable of thinking rationally. He remains an essentially irrational creature—like a "madman"—until he develops the capability of exerting his rational thought over his random feelings…. Although he is a boy of uncommonly deep sensibilities, his nature is still childishly one-sided, for his feelings, like a child's, still predominate over his inadequately developed intellect. Thus, one consistently finds Holden's thoughts being either suppressed by, or occurring as a result of, his feelings. (pp. 432-33)

Holden's feelings also predominate over his experiences of things outside himself. Each of his experiences generally arouses within him an immediate emotional response, over which he exerts no rational control…. Because Holden generally reacts to things outside himself … with no conception of the causal relationship between his experiences and his emotional responses, he views his world as a place where things usually happen to him all of a sudden as immediate occurrences—or, one might stress, they happen to him as though by chance: "Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening"; "Then something terrible happened just as I got in the park"; "Then, all of a sudden, I got in this big mess." It is important to realize that this sense of immediacy accompanying everything that happens to Holden divides his existence into a temporal sequence of seemingly isolated instances occurring one after the other, as is manifested on almost every page of the novel—in his thoughts: "Then, all of a sudden, I got this idea," "Then I thought of something, all of a sudden," "But all of a sudden, I changed my mind"; and in his actions: "All of a sudden I looked at the clock," "Then, all of a sudden, I yawned," "Then, all of a sudden, I started to cry."

Holden's sense of immediacy within each thing that happens to him also leads to his sense of transiency. Because he experiences his world temporally, with the present moment always becoming a segment of the past, Holden views his life as being in a state of continual change. Since a developed intellect is needed to realize immutable conceptions, and since Holden's "thinking" … is limited to his sense of the mutability of life, Holden remains trapped within time, unable to recognize anything permanent in human existence. (pp. 433-34)

Holden would like to keep Phoebe a child because he is troubled by the differences he sees between children and adults, both in their physical appearances and in their personalities. Holden finds children physically acceptable under any conditions, but not adults…. The personality of a child is also preferable to Holden…. (pp. 434-35)

[The] change occurring within the developing child as he experiences his world proves to be, in part, a corrupting one—as is manifested throughout the novel in a variety of ways, but most consistently, perhaps, by the change occurring in the state of one's breath as he matures…. The significance of [the] recurrent references to breath may at first remain elusive, for, as is often the case in this novel, a symbol introduced early in the work may not be understood until a later clarifying passage is reached…. [The] Biblical association of man's breath with his spirit or soul [is] established in the novel. Holden's act of blowing his own breath up into his nostrils "to see if my breath stank from so many cigarettes and the Scotch and sodas I drank" must therefore be looked upon as a more meaningful test than simply one of determining if his breath smells. In other words, the extent to which Holden's breath has been tainted, in this case by the adult acts of drinking and smoking, is, by implication, the extent to which Holden's spirit has been corrupted. (pp. 436-37)

As one's breath continues to be tainted, a loss of breath results. Holden repeatedly makes such comments as "I was sort of out of breath. I was smoking so damn much, I had hardly any wind." The older one grows, the more one experiences this loss…. Apparently, one finally reaches a state of existence similar to that of Holden's history teacher, old Spencer, who has the grippe, a disease of the lungs, and who must rely on Vicks Nose Drops to get breath into his nostrils.

Most of the people encountered by Holden in the novel have already experienced, to varying degrees, the corrupting influence of this world, people whose behavior Holden generally labels as phony, for they do not even realize that they have been corrupted. (pp. 438-39)

Holden's dilemma … throughout the book, is that he is unable to prevent his impending loss of that uncorrupted spirit possessed by children, such as Phoebe, before they have been immersed in the experiences of this world. (p. 440)

The solution to Holden's dilemma lies in his being able to perceive, with both sides of his nature, that everything in reality has two faces: that the ice in the lagoon in Central Park can both preserve and kill; that the "gasoline rainbows" Holden mentions are composed of "gasoline" and "rainbows"; that an old teacher can be like a child, and a child, such as Phoebe, can be "like a goddam school-teacher sometimes"; that everyone's nature extends, at the same time, back towards childhood and forward towards adulthood. One might see Holden himself, with his hat on backwards, facing in two directions, as typifying the sense of reality established in this novel. Therefore, if something that stays the same also conveys a sense of continuous change, then something that Holden earlier saw as continuously changing, such as childhood, should also convey a sense of staying the same.

Holden gains this new awareness as a result of re-experiencing his own childhood … in relationship to that of Phoebe's generation. Holden is able to associate childhood, not only with the past, as something waning and ending, but also with the future, as something beginning and becoming. Holden has thus far remained trapped in time, unable to recognize anything permanent within human existence, because of his incapability of perceiving that both the past and the future may be found in the present moment. Continuing now in this new direction, he eventually reaches such a moment: as he watches Phoebe on the carrousel, his sense of the past and his sense of the future become completely integrated, and he finally experiences an immutable conception of childhood. (pp. 448-50)

[The] change within Holden's outlook is stunningly illustrated at the end of the novel when all of the movements developed symbolically throughout Holden's narrative are brought together in a manner acceptable to Holden: that is, by the movements of Phoebe on the carrousel. One must first recall, as presented earlier [in this essay], that a forward movement is suggestive of proceeding from one state of being to another, and that a movement up suggests the uncorrupting isolation of spiritual heights, and down, a deeper immersion into worldly experiences. As Phoebe rides upon her horse, her actions illustrate every one of these symbolic movements…. (p. 451)

The carrousel,… as a symbol composed of a complexity of opposite qualities and tenuous ambiguities, all existing together within a harmony of music and motion, typifies the sense of reality Holden finally perceives. As a result, the dilemma which he has faced throughout his narration is resolved, for he is capable now, as he sits in the rain, of accepting his world as it is. Furthermore,… the divisive aspects of his nature, his emotions and his intellect, are finally integrated…. (p. 453)

Where, then, is Holden at the end of the novel? Critics have seen him as narrating his story to an analyst in a mental institution, Holden's concluding retreat from his world. But why would Holden talk about "this one psychoanalyst guy they have here" if he were supposedly talking to the analyst? And certainly at least "one psychoanalyst" is often found on the staff of various kinds of institutions. Furthermore, why would Holden have been placed in a mental institution in the West rather than near his home? One need not surmise in this manner to determine where Holden is. There is enough information in the novel to place him exactly: within a particular state of existence. On the final page, Holden says, "I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all…." The nature of Holden's sickness was clarified at the beginning of the novel, for when Holden introduced his narrative from the unidentified place he is in, he said:

I have no wind, if you want to know the truth. I'm quite a heavy smoker, for one thing—that is, I used to be. They made me cut it out. Another thing, I grew six and a half inches last year. That's also how I practically got t.b. and came out here for all these goddam checkups and stuff.

Having finally attained a solution to his dilemma, Holden is now attempting to recover, at least partially, from the particular physical impairment caused by his experience of growing up within a corrupting world. He is out West—but no longer wishing to isolate himself from people—because the dry and sunny climate is beneficial to his immediate condition…. [Apparently] in a sanitarium for lung diseases, Holden is recovering from his loss of breath.

One might conclude by stressing that Holden is talking, not to an analyst, but to "you," the reader…. Holden is talking directly to anyone who might be as "troubled morally and spiritually" as Holden was about the nature of this world in which everyone exists. He offers his narration of The Catcher in the Rye as a record of his troubles for anyone who might wish to learn from his experiences. As Mr. Antolini says, "It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry." (pp. 454-55)

William Glasser, "The Catcher in the Rye," in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1976), Fall, 1976, pp. 432-55.